The right to privacy has been one of the defining issues of the modern world, especially since the advent of the internet, which has facilitated the vast and rapid exchange of information — often beyond our own apparent individual control. The Babbage technology column in The Economist highlights one of the complex dynamics of this issue: the trade off between the convenience that the web brings — many in the form of free services from social media to search — and the need to give up a certain measure of privacy as payment of a sort.
It has been said many times, but the fact remains that anything users share over the internet will inevitably be bought and sold and, sooner or later, used against them in some way. That is the price people tacitly accept for the convenience of using popular web services free of charge.
The corollary, of course, is that if individuals are not paying for some online product, they are the product. And collecting information about the product (users) enhances its value for the service’s actual customers (advertisers, corporate clients and government agencies) who pay the bills. That is how the business model works. Those who do not like it can choose not to use such free services and find paid alternatives instead that promise greater privacy. Though limited, they do exist.
Granted, the internet is an inherent social force that’s driven by networks and trends, so most people tend to gravitate to services that most other people are already using. So seeking out alternatives is easier said than done, since those that do so will likely find themselves alone or out of the loop.
Perhaps the fact that most people have (thus far) chosen to use the services that mine their data says something about what we value more, or about how unconcerning the whole process ultimately seems. Indeed, it’s pretty much become a given that that is how the internet works:
Along with other internet companies, Google mines the data it collects from users for two purposes. One is to improve the user experience, making its various online services more personal, useful and rewarding for the individual—and thereby increasing their popularity. The other purpose is to provide better targeted information for advertisers.
Like other firms offering free services, Google makes its living out of matching the right kind of advertising to the specific interests of its individual users. To do so, it needs to know their likes and purchases as well as their identifiers and demographics, including name, sex, age, address, current location and income bracket.
If truth be told, no-one needs to eavesdrop to discover such things. People willingly volunteer all manner of facts about themselves when registering or subscribing to various online services. Scraping such information off social networks and combining it with data drawn from sites for searching, shopping, downloading, streaming or whatever lets social marketers infer all they need to know about most individuals.
That is fine for the vast majority of internet users, who are happy to trade a measure of privacy for the convenience of using popular sites like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. That such convenience comes free of charge makes the trade an even better deal. But where to draw the line?
There’s already growing concern about whether we’ve gone too far in willingly giving up our information to internet companies (and whether those firms themselves have been crossing the line). But at the article notes, most of what we share is already public knowledge: the stuff we want to buy, the movies we like, the personal views we hold, etc. Isn’t it unreasonable to expect companies that are offering a free service to not, at the very least, utilize this innocuous data to sustain their operations? (After all, there are overhead costs to cover). Well, that’s where it gets a little complicated:
It is one thing to reveal personal preferences such as favourite films, TV shows, dishes, books or music tracks. However, most people (though not all) stop short of blurting out more intimate details about their private lives. Even so, all those innocuous bits of self-revelation can be pieced together, jig-saw fashion, by intelligent algorithms. Throw in the digital paper-trails stashed in Google searches and Amazon purchases, and things can begin to get a little scary.
Babbage’s teenage daughter, for instance, uses his Amazon account and credit card to buy everything from romantic novels to cosmetics and underwear. As a result, he gets bombarded by e-mails recommending other female items he might like to purchase. Anyone leaning over his shoulder could easily label him a pervert or worse.
So is the onus on companies to refrain — or be legally forced to refrain — from prying into our more personal tastes and habits? Or is this once again a small price to pay for the convenience that such “personalized” services offer? Maybe we’re the ones that need to take action, as the Babbage columnist feels.
But with the convenience of using free online services, even those offered by major brands, comes the responsibility to be personally vigilant, to watch out for oneself—and to be willing to pay for services that offer higher levels of security, freedom from advertising, or simply a better quality of service all round. One of Babbage’s colleagues says he would happily pay for Twitter if it provided proper analytics. He would pay for Facebook, too, if it did not compress his photographs so much.
Ultimately, though, Babbage is more concerned about identity theft than with Google selling his likes and dislikes to advertisers. This is one of the fastest growing white-collar crimes around, with an identity being stolen somewhere at least once every four seconds (see “Your life in their hands”, March 23rd 2007). The average cost of restoring a stolen identity is reckoned to be $8,000, and victims spend typically 600 hours dealing with the nightmare—plus many years more restoring their good name and credit record.
Personally, I side with Babbage in that I see little conceivable harm in the mining of already-public or innocuous data, but do feel that the potential for identity theft is a growing and real threat, one made easier by all the data flowing around on the web. And what about private messages or email? What would happen if someone were to hack into our Facebook, Google, or smartphone accounts and expose our personal conversations? Are we to just avoid such exchanges on the web?
And will our tacit acceptance of this arrangement lead to a blurring of what’s public and private? As people become more willing and able to share more about themselves online, do we risk undermining our own sense of personal space? Maybe it doesn’t even matter and we’re happy to share these things; after all, humans have always been keen on self-expression, and the rate of doing so has always increased alongside advances in media (consider the then-unprecedented outflow of opinions and data once the printing press was invented).
Anyway, what are your thoughts?
Africa rarely comes to mind as a hub for technological and infrastructural innovation (on the contrary, it seems that most people I know forget it even has modern cities to begin with).
But despite its immense social, economic, and political challenges, the increasingly vibrant continent is brimming with potential and economic growth — and therefore optimism. Hence some of these ambitious urban plans, some of which rival science fiction in their sleekness and engineering brilliance.
Konza – Kenya
Dubbed as “Africa’s Silicon Savannah,” Konza Techno City is the Kenyan government’s flagship mega project designed to foster the growth of the country’s technology industry.
The multi-billion dollar city, located on a 5,000-acre plot of land some 60 kilometers southeast of the capital Nairobi, aims to create nearly 100,000 jobs by 2030.
It will feature a central business district, a university campus, urban parks and housing to accommodate some 185,000 people.
Appolonia, King City — Ghana
The mixed-use satellite cites are expected to accommodate more than 160,000 residents on land developed for housing properties, retail and commercial centers, as well as schools, healthcare and other social amenities.
Rendeavour says that all baseline studies, master plans and detailed designs have been completed and approved, while basic infrastructure work in Appolonia is expected to begin in the third quarter of 2013.
Eko Atlantic — Nigeria
Eko Atlantic is a multi-billion dollar residential and business development that will be located on Victoria Island in Lagos, along its upmarket Bar Beach coastline.
The ambitious project is being built on 10 square kilometers of land reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean.
Eko Atlantic is expected to provide upscale accommodation for 250,000 people and employment opportunities for a further 150,000.
Tatu City – Kenya
Also being developed by Rendeavour, Tatu City will span 1,035 hectares of land some 15 kilometers from Nairobi.
It is designed to create a new decentralized urban center to the north of the bustling Kenyan capital.
Construction work began last May and the whole project is projected to be completed in 10 phases by 2022. When finalized, the mixed-use satellite city is expected to be home to 77,000 residents.
La Cite du Fleuve – Democratic Republic of Congo
La Cite du Fleuve is a luxurious housing project planned for two islands on the Congo River in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo and one of Africa’s fastest growing cities.
Developer Hawkwood Properties plans to reclaim about 375 hectares of sandbanks and swamps to build thousands of riverside villas, offices and shopping centers over the next 10 years.
It says that more than 20 hectares of land have already been reclaimed.
Hope City — Ghana
Hope City is a $10 billion high-tech hub that will be built outside Accra, aiming to turn Ghana into a major ICT player.
The planned hub, which is hoped will house 25,000 residents and create jobs for 50,000 people, will be made up of six towers of different dimensions, including a 75-story, 270 meter-high building that is expected to be the highest in Africa.
Ghanaian company RLG Communications is financing 30% of the project, while the remainder will be funded by a wide array of investors and through a stock-buying scheme. Its sustainable facilities will include an assembly plant for various tech products, business offices, an IT university and a hospital, as well as restaurants, theaters and sports centers.
Kigali — Rwanda
The capital and biggest city of Rwanda has launched an ambitious urban development plan to transform itself into the “center of urban excellence in Africa.” The bold and radical 2020 Kigali Conceptual Master Plan includes all the hallmarks of a regional hub for business, trade and tourism. It envisages Singapore-like commercial and shopping districts boasting glass-box skyscrapers and modern hotels, as well as green-themed parks and entertainment facilities.
Of course, given the many issues these nations face, there is still plenty of understandable skepticism:
Critics warn that many of these new developments will only serve a tiny elite, exacerbating an already deep divide between the haves and have-nots.
“They are essentially designed for people with money,” says Vanessa Watson, professor of city planning at the University of Cape Town. She describes many of the plans as unsustainable “urban fantasies” that ignore the reality of African cities, where most people are still poor and live informally.
“What many of these new cities are doing will result in the exclusion and the forced removal of those kind of informal areas, which quite often are on well-located land,” says Watson. In some cases, entire settlements have been relocated and large plots of land have been cleared to make way for the proposed projects.
Critics also bemoan a lack of adequate research to gauge the impact of some new developments on the local environment and economies.
They point out the “ghost town” of Kilamba in Angola, a grandiose project often labeled as a white elephant. Built afresh outside the capital Luanda, Kilamba was designed to accommodate hundreds of thousands of people but remains largely empty due to its expensive housing and unfavorable location.
I can still dream at least.
What are your thoughts and experiences with this?
It’s a shame that so few people in the West realize the innumerable contributions that Chinese civilization has made to humanity. It’s astounding how far ahead the Chinese were in just about every area of knowledge. Note that each of these were independently developed by the Chinese, even if some were also used or invented elsewhere.
- Battens in sails and cloth
- Blast furnace
- Cast iron
- Tofu, Ramen sushi
- Qipao, Hanfu (clothing)
- Crank (drugs)
- Repeating crossbow
- Escapement mechanism for clocks
- Exploding cannonball
- Fire Arrow
- Horse collar
- Hull compartments/bulkheads
- Indian ink
- Land mines
- Menus for Song-era restaurants
- Naval mines
- Pendulum (Zhang Heng)
- Printing (woodblock printing and movable type)
- Rockets: Fire Arrow, Multistage rocket
- Sailing carriage
- Seismometer (of Zhang Heng)
- South Pointing Chariot (differential gear, of Ma Jun)
- Sluice gates
- Toilet paper
- Traditional Chinese medicine
- Trebuchet (traction)
- Trip hammer
- Winnowing machine
- Abacus (first appearance: Mesopotamia, 2400 BC. First certain appearance in China: 12th century AD)
- Armillary sphere (invented by the Greek Eratosthenes), with the world’s first water-powered armillary sphere by Zhang Heng.
- Various automata / primitive machines (refer to article on King Mu of Zhou, Mozi, Lu Ban, etc.)
- Belt drive
- Bituminous coke for the iron and steel industry
- Camera obscura
- Cardan Suspension
- The cannon
- Chain drive
- Chain pumps
- Chinese calendar
- The Flamethrower
- Flash lock
- Early explosive grenades
- Paddle wheel, for boats
- Paper money
- Pontoon bridge
- Postal system
- Pound lock
- Suspension bridge
- Star catalogue
- Water clock
Find even more contributions here.
I’ve spoken at length about Finland’s education system before (here, here, and here) and I believe it deserves all the attention it can get, especially since much of this success is due to policies that are applicable in the US (if not elsewhere) — professionalizing the teaching industry, promoting smaller class sizes in conjunction with more student-to-teacher interaction, and so on. I think the following image breaks it down rather nicely, but if you want more information and sources, visit the hyperlinks above.
Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate child of the famous poet Lord Byron, was a mathematician and writer chiefly known for her work on the Analytical Engine, an early mechanical computer developed by Charles Babbage. She helped developed what is considered to be the first algorithm designed to be processed by a machine – what we would today call a computer program.
She even foresaw the potential of computers to perform tasks beyond mere number crunching, centuries before modern computers were developed. While her contributions are contested, she’s still quite an interesting historical character. Do take the chance to read up on her – there’s a great Google Doodle in her honor.
Also, on this day in 1901, the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace. Prizes were presented by the king of Sweden, in accordance with the will of inventor Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel. Hat tip to Stepehen Thomas for the reminder.
On this day, November 29, in 1972, American video game company Atari released Pong, one of the first video games to achieve great popularity at both arcades and households. Who would’ve known then what this simple game would eventually lead to (indeed, the American video game industry, including Atari, suffered a devastating crash in 1983).
Oh, and it’s also Liberation Day in Albania, in which the country was liberated from Axis forces in 1944, almost entirely by its domestic resistance movement. Aside from managing to free themselves (thus being one of only two states in Eastern Europe to lie outside the Soviet yoke), Albanians fiercely protected their Jews. The country was perhaps the only one that ended up having *more* Jews after World War II then less.
Social media has made the ritual of death pretty interesting. When we die, we will be among the first generation to leave behind a unique timeline of our lives, in the form of photos, biographical information, status updates, and interactions with others. Our profiles will become shrines for our loved ones to leave condolences or see a time capsule of our time on this Earth (I’ve already seen this happen with the Facebook profiles of several deceased friends and acquaintances).
Of course, this would raise another interesting thought: do we plan on keeping our social media profiles indefinitely? Will there be a point where we’ll just grow out of it, or will it continue to mature with us until we die? It’s strange to think that we’ll have this constant (albeit wildly variable) record of our lives following us as we age.
Alan Turing was a visionary mathematician and computer scientist who helped cracked Germany’s military code during World War II, and who developed algorithms and concepts that would eventually lead to the creation of the modern computer. Indeed, he regarded as the father of computer and artificial intelligence, and the “Turing test” is used to this day for determining a machine’s intelligence.
Unfortunately, Turing was also subject to persecution for his homosexuality, which during his time was a crime in the UK. He was subject to chemical castration, public humiliation, and stripped of his job with the UK’s intelligence agency (where he had pioneered a lot of computer and cryptanalytical work). He died two years later from cyanide poisoning, in what is widely considered to have been a suicide (the government has since offered a posthumous apology for the legal actions levied against him).
It’s a shame Turing would die so relatively young, given what more he could’ve provided us. In his brief time on this Earth, he made instrumental contributions to what is now one of the most important technological developments in human history. Despite his tragic and untimely death, he left quite a legacy.