How broken email led to my discovery of the Landfill Harmonic Orchestra

Following my confession on the breakdown of my relationship with technology, these are the messages Web Outlook are giving me this morning.

Error message      error message

It seems to have broke in the night although it’s probably my laptop. The most common response from colleagues is a variation on one of the themes below:

  • I’ve never seen that error message before.
  • It’s working ok for me.
  • It must be you.
  • Have you checked your leads?
  • err nerr? you got a right ‘ull accent!

When you’re disconnected you realise the enormity of your net affair. How it affects every thing. This is only a partial break; not like when the network’s down and there’s nothing to do but tidy desks or wash up. Looking at the piles of unread papers on my floor, I could probably do with a few days network-free. But am careful what I wish for.

I’ve mobile options but not everyone has. Last week a colleague was surprised to find three students in their class were dependent on campus computers for internet access. The TELEDA Induction forum contains references to not wanting smart phones, fearing work/life balances would blur. Some make a point not to connect evenings and weekends. Others find devious means to send sneaky email on Saturdays while for many Sunday evening is the new Monday morning. The time of an email reveals the owls or early birds. Colleagues stay up late, get up early, some seem not to go to bed at all. How many times do you check your mobile phone? Is it the first or last thing when you get up in the morning? Do you take your phone to bed with you?

Opinion is divided. Some say it’s professional to keep a permanent eye on email, others want a work/life divide which is a sacrosanct. Like all digital literacies there’s no ‘one size fits all’ model; everyone needs to decide for themselves the most appropriate management of email or social media used for work purposes. There’s also the Blackboard discussion boards. If you’re moderating a group of students participating in an online activity, how often should you contribute? Is tutor input wanted? Can it be a blessing or a curse on the delicate process of encouraging shared practice online?

My email is back. Before catching up, here’s a video I might not have come across otherwise. A useful reminder of the value of virtual communication for sharing what really matters; how in the middle of terrible conditions the human spirit and the power of music survives.

The Landfill Harmonic Orchestra

SOPA and PIPA; be aware and be prepared to fight…

If you haven’t heard of SOPA today is a good time to look it up. Try Wikipedia today (18 January) and you will be directed to information about  SOPA and PIPA  instead.

Wikipedia blacked out in protest against SOPA and PIPA

Briefly the 24 hour blackout by Wikipedia and a number of other web presences is in response to proposals by the US Congress  –  the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)  and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) – which are designed to control user generated content. This is allegedly about infringement of copyright. Instead of reviewing existing copyright legislation in the light of an Internet age, the media giants have chosen to reinforce their monopolies with a cast iron boot approach. This directly opposes  the original ‘openness’ of the Internet while hiding behind claims of piracy and thievery aimed at users who are refusing to be customers. Google, Twitter and EBay are also allegedly opposing this legislation although not with Blackouts – maybe they should – but at least two of the three carry advertising.

The fear is the US will have the power to control information and close any websites which contain disputed copyrighted materials. Should it come about I suspect DRM will inevitably be extended as commercial companies use this as an opportunity to protect their brands and products. Capitalism is fighting back and the only surprise is that it has taken this long. There are two issues; firstly the debate over copyright itself and secondly the exposure of the frailty of our digital connections. We take them for granted but they are more vulnerable to attack than we realise. Once the ways and means of imposing controls begins then the Internet will become just another commodity and all its potential for democratic access will be lost. These attempts to control the Internet should be opposed.

For more information see See Stop SOPA Now! by Dan Gilmour and Wikipedia Blackout Looms b  Mark Sweeny.

Letting go of books…

The Long Hall in Trinity College Dublin is less a Library and more a museum. You would need a good head for heights to work here; the mezzanine structure gives a whole new meaning to ‘books on the top shelf.’

It’s sad but I believe books have had their day. Just as monastic scribes gave way to the printing press, so books are becoming digital and the Kindle will be spoken of alongside  Gutenburg in the history of communication. We will tell grandchildren about a place called a Library, where we borrowed real books then took them back and borrowed some more; if we were late we had to pay a fine and in a Library you didn’t talk, you were quiet. It was a contemplative place, a bit like a church, only they’re going out of fashion too. Today, Trinity College Library occupies that space between utility and relic. Visiting the Library is tagged onto seeing the Book of Kells and neither are free. Prepaying 9 euros over the Internet makes no difference to the system. You still need a ticket with a barcode. One of many things the Internet can’t do is remove the need to queue.

The Book of Kells, four illuminated Gospel manuscripts, offers a tangible link with the past but you can’t touch it. Over 1200 years old, it represents a heritage from a different age.  What were once valuable and rare sources of communication are now even more so. The Book of Kells lies behind glass in a darkened room, no photographs please, a symbol of a different age when access to what passed as knowledge was limited to church and state. Today we take such access for granted but the nature of the book itself is changing; the idea of an individual volume in your hand is being replaced with a digital reader containing multiple volumes downloaded from the Internet. The Public Library is under threat and not just because of government cuts to front line services. We need to take care because the any-time any-where, instant gratification of digital data comes at a cost. 

We need to hold onto our memories of libraries; shafts of sunlight in dusty reading rooms, the card index catalogue, the shelf upon shelf of hardbacks, some borrowed frequently, some never at all, the escape from the noise of the traffic and the bustle of the High Street with the promise of further escape into literature. Humankind has always loved stories.

The Internet is enabling a dangerous social shift. As we moved from oral to print traditions, so the move from analogue to digital culture risks the loss of what was once valued. Books are more than artifacts – they are a symbol of our times. They represent the communication of ideas and without ideas we are nothing. We need to hold onto what matters. Letting go of books is to let go of more than we might realize.

visual impairment

Supporting visually impaired people using the internet highlights how little attention is paid to ensuring websites are accessible. It’s frustration overload; as if finding your way around the keyboard isn’t difficult enough you are then reliant on ‘listening’ to a disembodied electronic voice reading out the html sitting behind the website. It can’t make assumptions or use previous knowledge; it can only read what the designer has put there.

Online information is still designed primarily to be a visual experience. There are standards and guidelines galore but wouldn’t it be easier to ask a visually impaired person what works and what doesn’t work?

A leading supermarket has done some work on making its online shopping site accessible to the visually impaired. BUT there are still problems. It’s 2009. What happened to compliance with disability legislation that started over a decade ago? Why is it that the most vulnerable members of our society – to whom internet access can offer opportunities to re-engage through digital data – are still being discriminated against?

It’s not a technical issue; it’s a human one – it’s a social, cultural and political one. The Internet could be fully accessible and it isn’t; and that reflects badly on everyone of us working with virtual environments.

internet ocean

If you are going to be net savvy you need to get organised. Bookmarking and RSS feeds are the key. Choose a feed reader you can access from any computer such as Netvibes or Google Feed Reader. Make your feed reader your home page; it’s the best way of engaging with your updates on a regular basis. I like the drag and drop functionality of Netvibes. For bookmarking sites I use delicious. Adding the delicious extension to Firefox means I can bookmark, tag and access my delicious folders within my browser. I then feed my delicious account into netvibes; ditto with Facebook, Twitter and any other social networking sites plus my favourite blogs and news webs.  Everything is all in one place making Netvibes my one stop internet shop and a valuable life raft which keeps me afloat in the Internet ocean.