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We bought the e-ticket, we're taking the ride

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Aleks Krotoski | 11:47 UK time, Monday, 24 August 2009

Over the past few weeks, we've been rather po-facedly debating the contemporary Nation-State: one union under the World Wide Web, facilitated by the Internet, threatening the sovereignty of modern political structures. Now, we're going to turn the tables and look at what the Web is doing to us. No, not along the lines that Internet- sceptics like Baronness Susan Greenfield propose (we'll be getting into that in our final programme), but at what we are giving up of ourselves to the people behind the websites every time we go online.

Programme number three is tentatively titled, "The Cost of Free". It's all about the little bits of us that we trade to use the Web.

I'm a dystopian from way back. I distinctly remember the first time I landed on 1984, one of those books on my shelf that is so well thumbed, I've practically rubbed out the writing. When I discovered it in high school, it turned my world upside down: it was a challenge, a call to arms, a layer of consciousness peeled back, magical sunglasses put on, an awareness of the hidden machinations that keep us ticking over like drugged, pliant masses. Really. Very exciting.

Among the many things that have stuck in my mind from Orwell's powerful story was the box in the corner of every room that watched the citizenry of Oceania. Big Brother (sadly caricatured by a light entertainment, self-promotional vehicle) kept tabs on Winston Smith and his compatriots through the telescreen, or the two-way TV that proved an unavoidable window into private and public life.

Over the years, it has occurred to me that the Web is an adaptation of this object. In addition to the content that we willingly give to it through our profiles, our feeds and our clickstreams, there are many terrifying hacks that we don't realise are giving other people access into our lives. Take this list of unsecured webcams as an example: you and I are free to look into the rooms of anyone who chooses to leave their network loops open, and those people who didn't know the difference. Kinda freaks me out.

But there is one critical difference between the modern world and the world created by Orwell: this pseudo-surveillance has not been imposed by any State. We are complicit in bringing the machine into our lives.

The success of this innovation has been brought about because we've listened to our friends and we've listened to our wallets. The benefits significantly outweigh the costs. As Boldwing commented on our very first blog post: we are able to connect, collect, contribute and create online in ways that were heretofore impossible. And we do all this for free. Pretty flipping amazing.

So what are the costs? And more importantly, who is watching us? Well, that's what we're going to look at over the next few weeks. We are going to examine how we are vulnerable, but how our vulnerability is making the world a better place.

I love the ideas in all four of the Digital Revolution programmes, but I think this is my favourite at the moment, because it taps into something so wonderfully dark, so disturbingly dystopian, that I'm sure what we uncover will be far, far stranger than fiction. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    It is worrying that someone can piece together your life and see what we're doing/talking about, just by tracking your real name, email addresses and user names. What is just as worrying though, is that they can also get it wrong - if you've got the same real name, or user name as someone else on a different site, you run the risk of mistaken identity. If I check a site to see if I can use one of my usual logins for an account (which I expect to be unique), it's surprising how many times the logins are already taken.

    To illustrate this, I came across an arty web site where you can enter your name and it shows your internet profile built on different criteria/interests, based on where your name pops up and comments you make on the internet. I don't have a problem with being mistaken for the bloke who played guitar in a prog band in the 60s, but unfortunately I'm not him. I'm not a stone mason either.

    However, in a way, it is my own fault. I can't blame anyone else apart from myself if big brother tracks me down and identifies me correctly or incorrectly, as I'm the one who was prepared to leave all those comments or discuss things on various forums, blogs and websites. I suspect in the long run I will regret it.... see, I haven't learnt my lesson yet. ;-)

  • Comment number 3.

    Message deleted because it broke house rules - OK what house rules did it break? It was on topic as we're discussing Orwellian scenarios and BBC moderation falls into that category. i.e. no freedom of speech.

    Let me try again. I would have thought that at the digital revolution end of the BBC that freedom of speech might actually be respected.


    Well I've noticed that the BBC is decidedly Orwellian at times - take this morning for instance when I tried to publish my views on the BBC News "Have your say" forum titled "Have the Ashes given you a feel good factor?"

    My comment didn't break the house rules and it was on topic despite widening the issue and putting the sporting victory into national political context.

    Comment rejected - like most of my comments on HYS are. Someone at the BBC does not like people mentioning the way that the British state gives the people of England the Brown end of the stick.


    I'm happy England have won.

    Sadly sport is the only area where the English are allowed any recognition or representation

    England remains one of the only countries in the world without it's own parliament. The Scots, Welsh and N. Irish all have devolved government but England is still ruled by the UK parliament which puts the English last - fiscally and democratically.

    England has the "English regions" but no-one voted for them.

    It's time England was recognised as a nation once again.


    And I expect this comment will be deleted in due course too.

  • Comment number 4.

    Ah GaryGSCC, but are we always who we say we are online and is the information, such as birthdates, correct? It's not exactly Big Brother snooping via CCTV but what amazes me more is the people who apparently still leave their computers open to prying via wireless internet connection to strangers outside their homes.

    I am given to pondering that if it is so easy for criminals to take advantage of stealing online identities because they are so easily assimilated then why can't those appointed and entrusted with keeping track of us, as in Benefits and Taxation, also do so and prevent Benefit Fraud and Tax Evasion.

    Oh dear englandrise, don't take it to hard, this happens over on the BBC Radio2 Folk & Acoustic message board. I quote "But I do wonder why these referals have only ever occurred on this particular mb" from someone feeling as strongly as yourself at being a victim of the Clearing Hosts/Mods. Luckily we have a very understanding Mod who interpolates for us & issues do get resolved. Did you not receive an email explaining why your comments were blocked? This is what happens on the message boards and one can then amend and resubmit the message.

    A short Thread 'Modding explanation please' from the Folk msg board this week here:

    If this is not BBC policy on HYS or comments like this then it should be. Otherwise, and this is where it fits in with Programme 3 and us being 'watched', we can develop an online 'reputation' for breaking rules on the BBC website, and also have no chance of expressing ourselves clearly and correctly within the BBC House Rules.

  • Comment number 5.

    Oh dear - The above may not make sense to others now. I composed my response to englandrise before the first post was hidden! I've not had a chance to read the second englandrise hidden post. Apologies if my comment reads oddly now, but also, as I mentioned, will clear advice be given to englandrise so that acceptable amendment to their posts can be resubmitted?

  • Comment number 6.

    @GaryGCSS 'I'm the one who was prepared to leave all those comments or discuss things on various forums, blogs and websites. I suspect in the long run I will regret it...' :) I hope not!

    I realise that was in jest, but do you think you may come to regret your interactions on the social web? Have you experienced a rueful moment?

    @EnglishFolkFan - funny you should mention birthdates and the like. Traditionally the mainstay of the password back-up and security question, it's now often recommended that you don't use true dates or names as the truth is a greater security risk than a deliberate fiction. (of course, you can end up looking at a log in screen like William Goldman wondering 'which lie did I tell?')

  • Comment number 7.

    Ahh, but one of the arts to lying is consistency. Stick to the same lie (i.e. DoB) and you don't forget.

    Passwords are another matter. How many people stick to the same one (or two or three...) for all those sites they have to log-into? And then ask the computer to remember for them to make logging in quicker!

    I've yet to hear of fraudulent comments (i.e made under someone else's avatar name) being made though, but just wait until SheffTim sees this later on . . . :-)

  • Comment number 8.

    @shefftim :) (Comment-jacking, I'm sure it has happened. Certainly Twitter accounts have been hacked and used to spam / bring shame upon a name).

    I suppose the main themes of this programme may link to that 'controlled' element of privacy and security - passwords and keywords (although that is part of it), but we are also concerned with that information which you release into the web simply by your behaviour, your interactions with sites and people - your digital footprint, your clickstream data, your preferences, your friends and FOAF file.

    Do you ever have concerns that this more incidental information too is open to exploitation, commercially legitimate or otherwise?

  • Comment number 9.

    Englishfolkfan. I agree - I don't imagine everyone on the internet is who they say they are. It would be good to be able to trust everyone straight away, but you can't pick up the same signals about a person on the internet that you would do in everyday life. Actually, even in the world outside the web, it's still sometimes difficult to spot that there's something 'not right', until it's too late. Some people on the web build an image of themselves and when you get to know them, they aren't actually the person you thought they were. The truth does seem to come out eventually though.

    I also wonder if you've just given the taxman and benefits agencies an idea for free. Maybe they'd never thought of combining the data before. Are there issues around data protection that everyone else ignores?

    Dan - Re. Rueful moments. I don't regret the actual things I say on the web/internet. Online discussions give me a chance to think before I say anything and (despite the handful of comments on this blog) I'm not a serial comment maker. However, I am sometimes concerned that whatever I have said will come back to bite me in a way that I'd never have expected, whether big brother is a corporate entity or a hacker down the road. I know I'm not a bigshot, but you don't have to be a bigshot to be on the receiving end of something nasty.

  • Comment number 10.

    On another take of what 'we' submit freely to the web:
    'Photojournalism today' the subject of Phil Coome's Photoblog BBC News 14Aug09

    In the discussion of this piece about the imminent demise of the subject Comment #7 makes the point that gathering pictures from amateurs for free via the web is wrong, all work should be paid for plus it undermines the role of the professional:


  • Comment number 11.

    This piece
    in today's online Guardian has sparked many comments on the lunacy of the dot(ty)gov idea announced today to act against the piracy act of downloading media

    I suspect that this Digital Revolution series with be revolving with edits and amendments on the topic right up to transmission date!

    I note the BBC have used a HYSer's comment "but to cut them off from the internet would be taking away the right to free speech and communication" on the main news page! Imho this fits with the discussion in Aleks' Blog perfectly.

    Btw I hope the BBC News item on multitasking
    didn't cause to much consternation in the BBCDigRev office!

  • Comment number 12.

    I was hoping the linking up of the .gov agencies was going to be commented on as being such a logistical nightmare that we will never actually have a Big Brother with all the correct information about each us!

    Yes Aleks it was weird to read 1984 way, way before then and wonder as we crept closer what life would be like, made 2000 quite anti-climactic for me..... My sci-fi fantasy used to be babies tattooed with an ID, this has obviously been superseded the baby implanted with an ID micro chip at birth, and with parental overprotection let alone Political Power may this happen......?

  • Comment number 13.

    A not very well-formed idea here:

    I mentioned the idea earlier that the web is a winner-takes-all environment, in which a small number of providers completely dominate certain activities. And, of course, these companies offer an apparently-free service. So free service is being provided in exchange for "power" of some kind, which in turn is used to serve up advertising to people in exchange for money.

    Advertising, as we all know, is a process which is designed to change people's behaviour in order to make them buy something they wouldn't ordinarily buy. After all, if it didn't change something then nobody would spend money on it.

    So we're trading a certain freedom of thought in exchange for a place to keep our photos, journals, etc. Fair enough, if we make an informed choice to do so then I guess that's OK. Personally I believe we're sleepwalking into this without making any informed choices. Perhaps your show could talk about the psychological science of advertising and the way we are manipulated by people with agendas all the time. If you're feeling dystopian, quote Huxley's Brave New World Revisited: http://www.huxley.net/bnw-revisited/index.html

    "The survival of democracy depends on the ability of large numbers of people to make realistic choices in the light of adequate information. A dictatorship, on the other hand, maintains itself by censoring or dis­torting the facts, and by appealing, not to reason, not to enlightened self-interest, but to passion and prej­udice, to the powerful "hidden forces," as Hitler called them, present in the unconscious depths of every hu­man mind. "

    Secondly, the total dominance of a few providers in certain areas of our lives makes me ask another question: Which set of values and norms will come to dominate particular areas of human endeavour, and is it a good thing that a majority view prevail? If we see the internet as a battleground of ideas, or a brutal unregulated free-market of ideas, it seems likely that one idea or set of ideas will "do a Google" and become "the truth". Is there any debate about what the truth should be? And what of those occasions where the truth turns out to be inadequate, in need of revision? It happens all the time, for instance in the financial markets last year, and we've all seen the damage that has been done by the dominance of one set of rules and standards. Is there any Monopolies and Mergers Commission for the free-market of ideas, some entity which exists to promote diversity and safeguard minority positions which may one day turn out to have some value?

    The current situation is one in which the key players are competing to establish their supremacy, to be the authority in their own domains, at the expense of all the other ideas which could potentially work just as well. The open source movement, despite its flaws, is a kind of antidote to that but at times the big OS players behave in just the same way. Simply relying on OS as a sort of resistance to corporate takeovers of cyberspace is like relying on revolutionary movements in Banana Republics. We need a stronger supervisory authority charged with ensuring that new and original ideas don't get squashed by juggernauts.

  • Comment number 14.

    And a quick one:

    I use a free, open-source, content-management system called Joomla. Many different components are available, mostly for free, which are developed by independent teams. Excellent!

    Yesterday I installed a component called Joonfish, which enables you to have multi-language versions of your site. It places little flags on every page, and you click them to select the language you want. Oddly, the 'traditional Chinese' language pack uses the flag of mainland China. Mainland China uses simplified Chinese, the traditional characters are used in Taiwan - the renegade province which is still resisting formal reunification.

    So someone with a political agenda is using 'free' to get his message across.

  • Comment number 15.

    @TaiwanChallenges 'someone with a political agenda is using 'free' to get his message across.' Interesting - feeds into that notion of language as barrier / gatekeeper we've been discussing before.

    I've flagged with Programme 2 team.

  • Comment number 16.

    Following up on the thought that the cost of the web is putting up with adverts:
    One of the probably most effective use of adverts is on Facebook where they pick up on things you've put on your profile to show you targeted ads.
    It seems to me much more specific than the supposedly targeted ads that Google puts next to my emails on gmail.

    I wonder how much people realise they are giving the advertisers (in terms of information) in this sort of situation, and how much they care?

    In the last few weeks Facebook has taken away the ability to click on the "thumbs down" icon on their ads and say things like "not relevant". Was it because it was giving us too much power?

  • Comment number 17.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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