Can We Have Electronic Privacy, Security and Freedom, All in the Same Time?

I was scanning absent-mindedly the public transport vehicles parading in front of me when I noticed a new bus model. That happened not because it was dramatically different, but because it was red and it stopped in a place usually visited by blue buses. That gets my attention! While my unconscious was busy observing colours, my conscious-self stopped to examine an unusual video-camera. How cute! Protruding from the exterior top-edge of the bus, just above the mid-doors, the device was almost unnoticeable. Just like a little rounded soft bump, the camera had its own electronic eye looking down towards the door and the back of the bus. It reminded me of the chameleon.

At that moment the image of the bus, people waiting and moving slowly through the mid section to take their seats, the cameras and the monitor hanging on the ceiling with its images silently switching at regular intervals from one view to another, the whole picture stroke me as how much our urban environment has changed, almost by stealth. The bus – the symbol of slow pace and simplicity- has become such a sophisticated electronic beast.  Video sensors are all over it communicating continuously with a central base. The entire vehicle has become a data collector, not just a record keeper to be used only in case of public disorder. Think about how quickly the quality of the monitors has improved in the past decade. The video frames were a joke. Who could identify anyone that committed a crime from a trail of rough pixels smudged over a screen with dubious colours? We now have HD. Faces are easily identifiable; everyone’s face.

Notice how this is a two-edged sword: it is easier to catch a few trouble makers, but it is also easier to monitor everyone else. This system could be used to track your normal citizens who are blissfully unaware that someone is watching them. We do have the technology now to raise the surveillance bar to dangerous levels, and no one knows for sure how this is going to end-up. Face recognition technology means that someone with access to public data could trace your movements during the day by simply running a process that identifies your face and re-constructs your day. A commercial firm in UK used facial images of people who ‘like’ a retailer’s Facebook page to identify those who visit the shop in person with video cameras installed on the premises. This works great for targeted advertising.

So what?  This is better service, isn’t it? It is true, well,  at least not dangerous. But what if something or someone wants to get something by influencing the public to agree with an idea, which is not necessarily good for the people, but certainly for the benefit of the few? They could target all those individuals that have similar patterns to inoculate message with deep emotional impact, in a way that doesn’t involve obvious advertising, but personal and ‘natural’ communication. This entity could be anything. Anything that is able to conceive a goal that can be described in broad terms: patterns, data, large scale behaviours. Such a goal has no room for personal considerations of the many of us.

The bus I chose to pick on is chicken feed. You want something scarier? Meet ARGUS: the world’s highest resolution video surveillance platform.

With its 1.8 gigapixel video camera, ARGUS can create contextual movements of individual, vehicles, or anything sizeable that moves, for the duration of any day, in the area in which this device was ordered to scan.

I am not a fan of conspiracy theories at all. I am even sceptical that any individual or group of individual would be able to exploit this vast network of sensors and data in which we are enmeshed and destined to become smaller (even though smart!) nodes stripped of any major significance as individuals. But I wonder if the sheer size of this nervous system isn’t bound to create a consciousness that may set goals beyond our grasp. The internet of things will definitely make this more interesting over the next decade.

I recall the day when I bought a Gateway PC (this was about 17 years ago, I think) that came with a Kodak camera (DC25) equipped with a 256k pixels sensor. A few months ago I got a 36M pixels camera. This is an increase of over 1,000 times in resolution. Imagine what kind of world we will live in twenty years from now, with software that will be able to sift through mountains of data and find you wherever you are no matter what you do. What is the meaning of privacy, security and individual freedom in a world like that?

Why Are We So Opinionated About Public Education?

Why is education an open field for public opinions where so many with no training in teaching are convinced their views are as valid or competent as the professional educators’?

Perhaps deep down we believe we are experts at educating children because the human race has practiced simple forms of education over millions of years of evolution. Humans have the longest childhood among all species. A necessary requirement for becoming an adult is learning how to operate in a complex environment. We are born with instructions that demand us to teach our children how to walk, speak, use tools, and understand social norms.

Parents take pride in the way they “educate” their children at home. This learning period in anyone’s life is deeply emotional. Early years of parental education is a period of attachment during which children and parents establish strong bonding.

In contrast, as a recent invention in our long history, school is an artificial extension of a social relationship created and nurtured beyond the family home boundaries. Teachers never achieve the same status of trusted relationship with children not only because they missed the early opportunity to imprint attitudes, but also because their institutional goals serve a different purpose. Despite the dedication of millions of teachers, the connection between children and school is very thin and fragile. Schools are meant to serve a different master whose interest is to produce a workforce capable of supporting its socio-economic domain.

Many educational initiatives attempt to describe themselves as “student-centric”, or caring for “children’s wellbeing” don’t’ tell the entire story, which is the fact that they are designed to comply with the demands of the political system that funds them, and which in turn are separated by so many levels of bureaucratic layers from the individual families. They want to be close to the students, but the gap between individual families and state-wide social systems is so wide, they cannot ever achieve the ‘kinship’ status.

The relationship between schools and parents is difficult and the main reason it has worked so far is because of its practical value. This invisible contract worked for a few hundred years despite many difficulties because the parents and schools in the end served the same master. As children learned skills they need as members of the future workforce in a society representing their ‘natural’ habitat, parents have no choice but to accept the school’s role in preparing their children to survive as adults. Plus, parents need to go to work and someone has to mind their children while they are away from home; they have to outsource the education to people outside the immediate family.

How can schools give their students life skills? What worked in the past two hundred years doesn’t necessarily work in the next fifty years. In Australia the unemployment rate is now 5.4%. If you think this is a good rate, compare this with the unemployment rate in 1970: 0.9%. In 1951 it was even lower: 0.3%! In absolute numbers, we have 656,400 unemployed people today versus 78,000 unemployed people then. Schools were doing wonders; if you had education you got a job, no question asked. Today, good school education does not give any guarantees.

The lack of certainty plays on one essential evolutionary concern: our children have strong bodies and sharp minds that can figure out how to solve problems during their adult lives (in line with the culture they belong to). There is no other profession, other than medical care, that is so directly linked to our survival as a species. Medicine has been a mysterious secret protected by a few since the dawn of mankind. It needs access to scarce materials and know-how and it cannot be practiced at home. Education, on the other hand, that is another story. Key to survival of the individual, the tribe and its culture, it has remained a part of us as probably the oldest occupation that we still practice without even knowing. This is why people are so passionate when it comes to education.

Will Big Data Make Us Less Human?

A smartphone today has more computational power than Apollo 13. The computerised devices around us are increasingly smarter and they multiply at high speed changing the ecosystem in which we live. Some of us may feel suffocated by this change and with all the software code we use every day it seems human emotion is valued less and less.

One of the changes becoming more visible by the passing of each day is the invasion of data in the way we think. The digital replaces the analogue. Every move is broken down into small components and expressed into a binary form. Time is digital, distance is digital, the images are digital and the sounds are digital. The last two frontiers resisting to conversion are the tactile and the smell sense, but it is just a matter of time before they capitulate.

Has the technology made us less human?
It all started with “let’s improve our lives”. The cars have better controls, the phones are more convenient and helpful and the digital cameras are so good in capturing personal memories. At a personal level, this is a welcome upgrade. We like that.

But then, gradually, as these devices kept crunching numbers and generating more data than ever, a new development has grown out of the science labs into the daily life of the average person. This new wave of change is incessant and unforgiving. We were comfortable with the introduction of computing units at the beginning because the adoption process was so familiar: it was industrial, it was large and remote. The Univac, the IBM mainframes and the likes fit our industrial model of the world. There was a kind of order we were used to and we liked: punching cards required scheduling and approval from authority; the computer rooms had managers who made decisions after careful and lengthy considerations. In the old James Bond movies the computer labs are static, inflexible and secretive.

Digital change comes in waves
The first wave was about the macro-economy. Large data bits helped the modelling (through accidental and implicit development or by design) national economies and world trade in new ways leading to globalisation. The abundance of data changes the way nations trade among themselves, how populations live and how big infrastructure projects are built. One example in which this change had an impact on the human expression is tourism. Kevin Kelly (in “Pre-Globalization”) remarked how we lost in one swoop access to great historical and human treasures hidden in distant corners of the world. “Now every village gets visitors every now and then. Just as you get electricity, you get visitors. Multiplied by millions every year, the exchange produces a subtle leavening, a quiet education; a silent bridging that may in the end be as powerful as electricity and roads”.

The second wave brought change at home, at school, at work at individual level. You could call this the BYOD wave. It’s all about personal stuff. Maybe this started in the 90s when the PC started slowly to make its way into our lives with CD-ROMs, games and word processors. It is still happening at much accelerated pace: smartphones, tablets, heart monitors, digital cameras, etc.

The third wave, which started about 10 years ago, is about big data. Amazon was probably the first to recognise the value of customer data and monetise it successfully. Large networks received bits of information generated by our interaction with the electronic medium and make sense of what happens by reading behavioural patterns. All these innocent and cute devices that we love to have are in fact little Trojan horses opening the doors to a scary guy called Big Data. This guy is demanding now that we do things differently, forget about our old ‘human’ ways and learn new rational tricks.

Take this as an example: Progressive Insurance offers an insurance plan 30% less expensive if you agree to install a black box called Snapshot on your car. This device counts how often your slam you breaks, how many miles you drive and how often you drive between midnight and 4am. This a classic behavioural learning scheme based on stimuli and response. We are like lab rats.

Skills from out-of-body experience
The most unsettling aspect of the way big data influences our lives is that it diminished the value of knowledge accumulated through direct personal experience. As an individual we need to get good skills at learning about global knowledge and understand the large patterns. Intuition and emotion are very important, but it is essential to get better at bypassing emotional impulses based on individual experience in favour of “emotional” data patterns based on the experience of large groups. We need to develop antennas that capture large social digital signals.

So, are we less human? 
In the grand scheme of things, the answer is no. We will be just different. If you take a hard look at our past, we were not that human as we want us to believe. Let’s not forget that there was a time when we thought children are little monsters and their evil needed to be eliminated through pain. Beating was OK. Jonathan Swift even proposed poor parents eat their children to reduce their burden and for the benefit of the public.

To survive, the human race needed to adopt behaviours that while cruel from a modern perspective it made sense at the time. We are readier to understand this when we observe other species. We watch on TV how lions kill the cubs bestowed with the ‘wrong’ DNA and we listen thoughtfully the voice of the narrator that explains that this is just natural selection. If we were an alien sitting on a distant couch and watch us changing family values, adopt new social norms and promotion systems would we be surprised at all about our new adopted behaviours?  Not likely.

Larnaca Declaration on Learning Design

How splendid is Larnaca in September! The weather has an almost equatorial feel with perfect conditions day and night. It is pleasantly warm from sunset until late morning and bearably hot during the day; the sea has a calming presence with its magic blue and the colourful umbrellas peppered along the beach, and palm trees happily giving the final stamp of approval for everyone to stay worry free, relax and have a good time with friends.

Meanwhile at the Sun Beach hotel, a team made of colleagues from UK, Australia, Greece and Cyprus met in a big and bright conference room to discuss Learning Design. The group that gathered in Larnaca representing many years of experience in this field planned to establish a broad conceptual framework as a springboard for the further development of the Learning Design as a methodology.

This has been a perfectly timed workshop. The idea came up last year in December during the LAMS Conference in Sydney, to develop something that would bring all the research related to Learning Design into one contiguous body of work that captures the essence of Learning Design for the benefit of those who are interested in this methodology. The ICEM Conference 2012 (starting in the second half of the week) in Nicosia and Professor James Dalziel’s work on the ALTC National Teaching Fellowship proved to be a great catalyst for excellent collaboration.

Two important things came out of this work: (1) a comprehensive timeline of major events, formation of communities, publications and initiatives that occurred in the field of Learning Design over the past ten years or so, and (2) a high level map of the field of Learning Design (see below).

This is a great beginning for the consolidation of the knowledge generated through research, publications, conferences and many projects implemented in the past decade. The shared view signals an opportunity not only for a more productive academic research in this field, but also for helping teachers around the world, software developers, educational consultants and institutions to adopt Learning Design methodology for a more effective way of teaching students acquire knowledge and learn new skills.

The workshop and its outcomes felt like a strong direction setter and the team agreed unanimously that this event will be referred to in the history of this field as Larnaca Declaration on Learning Design.

The Windows 8 Tsunami

An eerie silence is present just before Windows 8 launch. The big stories of the day are the battle between Apple and Samsung, iPhone versus Android, and Google versus Apple. The trending topics on Mashable are in order: Twitter, Google, Apple, iPhone, Social Networking, Google+, Social Media, YouTube, Business, Android, iPad, Google Chrome, and… down the ladder somewhere is lurching Microsoft. No trace of Windows 8.

GigaOm, proudly promoting its own brand of research has almost no trace of Microsoft or Windows 8. Today on its navigation bar there is a prominent Apple menu item and a long list of articles on the home page, only one of which mentions Microsoft related story, although even that is about Xbox music service to launch on Android and iOS. Top articles menu bar has iPhone 5 on a prominent position.

Others are more preoccupied with the imminent invasion. ZDnet and C/Net have tons of articles on Windows 8, but they also have articles criticising the new operating system and predict failure (see below prediction for Win 8 RT certain failure). However, if you browse these two sites, it strikes you how many announcements of new Win 8 products are rushed by a large number of vendors even before the official launch of the platform software. The latest one is from Samsung, the Korean electronics powerhouse who unveils an ultrabook and tablets.

None of the media outlets dares to look into the significance of the new operating system. Sure, it’s risky and judging by the success of Windows Phone 7.5, Microsoft has had an aura of outdated technology. I may be wrong, but I don’t understand why they fail to see the magnitude of Microsoft’s transformation. I can see how they would want to avoid publishing risky prediction, but at least they should take a look at what is going on deep under the surface and forget for a moment the buzzwords of the day. The online journals have columnist who cultivate a loyal relationship with its biased readers. This is always a gold mine for ratings. Whenever and article is published about Apple or Google, an army of loyal fans work hard to make their presence felt. The ratings go up and everyone is happy. Postings about Windows phone 7 have a far smaller ‘stir’ factor.

I don’t have that kind of problem, so I am at an advantage. I can write what I want. To me, Microsoft has achieved an incredible turn around and it has become the innovator, while the others have acquired the status of the conservative incumbents. The tiles introduce a very novel and powerful concept. Because they are designed to be dynamic displaying real-time information pushed by various digital services, the combinations across the massive array of technical services starting from cloud computing platforms, to music, emails, weather, and anything in between, Microsoft is building a super-ecosystem using a quasi-seamless operating system . An example of what kind of services is possible in this super-ecosystem is Xbox Music. This is very difficult to replicate. Google has an excellent search and social network platform, but its operating system is fragmented to say the least. Apple is mono-cultural and built around one service: the AppStore/iTunes.

The signs of adoption of innovation are there: first, all vendors have announced a myriad of products, many of them quite innovative. Secondly, the new products are creating new categories which promise to fill the gap between tablets and laptops. Microsoft Surface is leading this trend. For Microsoft the innovation cycle starts anew.

Thirdly, the IT managers show a great deal of interest in Windows 8. It is interesting that in a survey published on InfoWorld Google Android is loosing share, while iOS is gaining. This is pointing to a problem that Android has in the enterprise space: fragmentation. This makes it difficult to support. Windows 8 will not have that problem and because of its strong compatibility with the legacy Windows platform it will have a faster adoption than the other two. And finally, Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 RT have a strong support from all vendors. This is where Apples win against Samsung might prove to be a very costly mistake, a Pyrrhic victory. I should also mention Nokia, which released Nokia Lumia 920. For the first time, Nokia looks better on paper than its main competitors, Samsung and Apple.

Windows 8 may have an impact on the education market. iPads are great looking devices, but they are difficult to integrate and use as effective learning tools. The new detachable and convertible ultrabooks may prove to be more practical and for the same reasons IT managers are ready to adopt Windows 8, education systems may have a strong interest in the new devices.