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all i thought was that @mmetcalfe appeard to have done zero research and said things no one seriously believes or thinks

My theme at FOTE 2010 was geolocation, which I used it as a springboard for considering the risks to privacy caused by ubiquitous mobile computing. You can relive the presentation here. For those of you living under the jackboot of a totalitarian regime, or working on a computer managed by a network nazi, here’s a recap.

Taking my theme from an observation by Magistrate Judge James Orenstein who wrote that much of what was private has inexorably passed into the public realm, I argued that the business models of free web services relied on productising consumers, either as advertising and consumer-profiling fodder, or as unpaid creators around whose “user generated content” advertising is wrapped. I discussed the appeal of the ubiquitous personal monitoring devices we pay to carry around with us, both to corporate and government data-miners, and the risks of an uncritical embrace of technology under those circumstances.

I worried that academia, civil society, and regulators were not addressing these risks, though they lauded the revolutionary potential of Twitter to liberate the citizens of oppressed regimes, or the power of social technologies to enhance learning and teaching.

I think productising consumers through mega-scale data-gathering is a bad thing. Others differ: there are prices we must pay for progress. For technology in education, though, I am concerned about two things: that there is the informed consent of “the product”, and that advocates maintain a critical stance towards “free” services.

Anyway. FOTE10 was two years ago. How wrong was I? Let’s see.


Online advertising continues its race to the bottom, taking the shine off Facebook’s IPO, and driving Google to dig deeper for ever more seams of advertising revenue to mine. Google even bought phone-maker Motorola Mobility. Twitter is moving to monetize the value of its user-generated content, at the expense of its third-party developers. Apple has gone from offering a paid cloud service to one for free.

If online advertising is losing its shine, there is no shortage of venture capitalists in search of the holy grail. Facebook’s numbers have not deterred Twitter from pursuing an ad-led strategy.

A reaction to advertising-driven business models was inevitable. The success of paid-for utility services such as Dropbox has challenged received wisdom, and developers are articulating alternative business models. There is a growing number of interesting alternatives to social networking staples – brainchildren of seasoned developers who want paying customers, not raw-materials they can productise. Can social networks achieve critical mass without free (and implicitly ad-driven) business models? Though Flickr has languished in Yahoo!’s hands for years, it was both a lively community and attracted paying customers.


A series of well-publicised data breaches (some recent examples: Facebook, Dropbox, LinkedIn, and Twitter), some carried out by activists, demonstrates that, in the absence of regulation, businesses pay scant heed to the security of customer data. Some show little compunction about spying on their customers.

If HR departments have mined the web for evidence of new hires’ “judgement”, Governments have shown how useful they find new technology, and the data we maintain about ourselves. Though Apple fixed a GPS vulnerability in iOS soon after it was announced, the company waited years to fix (or was prevented from fixing?) an iTunes vulnerability until its use in British-made government spyware was inadvertently revealed during the Arab Spring uprisings.

Closer to home, though common sense eventually prevailed, Paul Chambers was found guilty for a tweet that would have passed unexceptionally down any pub not run by the Stasi.

We may have nothing to fear if we have nothing to hide, but we are not wired for global audiences for our bad jokes and half-baked thoughts, or drunken escapades.

Still, the Arab Spring was a Twitter revolution, wasn’t it? Even if believing Twitter caused the uprisings is technological determinism gone mad. Perhaps, in the face powerful authoritarian regimes, we should be pessimistic about the power of the tweet. Nevertheless, the utility of mobile social media for mass organisation is enough for the Chinese government to block any service that tries it, and the British government to want to give it a go. Despite the restrictions on promoting mass action that the Chinese government imposes on domestic social media, the Chinese web is a lively, vocal, and opinionated forum for commentary on corrupt officials and social ills: a useful barometer for the Party today. Who knows, a kernel of social change tomorrow.


Silicon Valley may feel the education market is ripe for disruption. Content owners reframe learning as opportunities to watch super-star lectures, or license textbooks without removable batteries. The relevance of old-school VLEs continues to wane faster than universities’ leaders manage to embrace them. Unlucky institutions struggle with outdated IT departments engaged in outmoded practice, and there’s still no easy way for students to find out in good time when their lectures are cancelled. (I’m interested in hearing stories that prove me wrong!)

Early adopters engage with new players such as Coursera – a venture-funded company at the early “Twitter stage” of building out without a business model. Have the institutions that have signed up with Coursera considered the possibility of their students being served up as advertising fodder? Do their senior managers care?

The best hope for academic institutions today is that tech investors have a conservative library model of education – finding it appealing to think of learning as content against which advertising can be sold. In fact, education is in the experience, not in the stuff. How well institutional leaders understand that themselves, and how much time they have to act on that understanding now students have become paying customers is a story for another day.

posted by mmetcalfe on September 18, 2012

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