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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 08 March 2019, 2:00 pm

Never read the comments

I fought long and hard, tooth and nail to get a comments section up on Computerworld back in the day. It happened, eventually, after I'd gone but I was delighted. They had comments on all the stories and PC World went so far as to have a forum where users could banter and shoot the breeze.

My god, it was horrible.

But those are just comments. Uninformed, well meaning (I'll give them the benefit of the doubt) but misguided, even the ones threatening to come round and punch my lights out because I'd espoused the wrong view point on whether Half Life was better than Quake or some such.

What happens when you weaponise the comments section? When you make the comments section your playground where you can taunt or deceive or attack? We've fought forum spam for years, even the more subtle "Gosh, that's a great site you've got, would you link to my site so we can share traffic" nonsense, but today's crop is utterly vile.

Spark has made the correct call to stop advertising via YouTube until it sorts out its comments policy and starts actually policing this vileness. Alongside the death and rape threats the comments section of YouTube helps with the promotion of child pornography and bullying memes.

But it gets even worse. While you can switch off comments (or download the handy plug in Herp Derp for YouTube which turns all the comments on any video into a collection of nonsense words… well, more nonsense and less offensive words) you can't really stop YouTube showing you other "associated" videos and that doesn't work out so well either.

This time it's the world of the anti-vaccination crowd which is clearly bonkers but happy to spend money with Facebook. So, every time a scientist posts a pro-vaccine explanation as to why vaccines are a good thing (they stop debilitating and fatal illnesses) and no they don't give you autism and no they're not made out of the pineal glands of marmosets or babies from China (seriously now), the post is immediately followed by a series of videos shouting about why vaccines are evil and should be destroyed.

YouTube certainly favours controversial videos and extreme content because it generates clicks. Getting people angry or outraged about a subject to the point where they'll share it with everyone they know is great for traffic but, apparently, not so good for public health, for minority rights, or for democracy itself.

 It's just not acceptable and it shouldn't be allowed. It's high time a company with as much money as Google has spent some of it on making its products acceptable.

Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg has woken up to this whole "privacy" issue and says Facebook hasn't done a good job. Yeah, well, you could say that or you could say Facebook is built on the acquisition and sale of personal data without proper consent being sought or given. Potatoes, po-tah-toes.

Now he's proposing unifying WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger into Franken-app, a three-headed beast that will provide end-to-end encryption that puts privacy first and foremost. So long as Facebook can still see what you're doing and monetize it, of course.

Mind you, with Facebook's US base declining for the first time since whenever and a new report suggesting public trust in Facebook has plummeted, it might well be a signal that the worm (us, we're the worm) is finally turning. 

Stuff - Spark joins YouTube backlash after revelations of inappropriate content aimed at children

NZ Herald - Spark pulls all advertising from YouTube due to inappropriate kids' content

NBC News - Drowned out by the algorithm: Vaccination advocates struggle to be heard online

RNZ - Measles outbreak confirmed in Canterbury

Gizmodo - Mark Zuckerberg: 'Privacy'

Axios - Facebook's reputation is sinking fast

The Verge - Facebook's US user base declined by 15 million since 2017, according to survey


Unproductive and unhelpful

This will be the last column I write for Techblog.

Indeed, Techblog itself will have to close at the end of the week. Probably ITP should shut up shop as well, along with the other groups that discuss digital matters.

And all the people with jobs in IT will have to sign off one last time, close down their computers, switch their phones over to airplane mode before switching them off and putting them away for good.

It's over. Finished.

The dream, the opportunity, the calling that was "the digital economy" is done. Farewell everyone. Now is the time to go get a real job, probably in tourism.

That's according to the New Zealand Productivity Commission which, along with its Australian counterpart, has released the most blinkered, asinine, short-sighted report I have read in many years.

Actually if I think about it, the last time I read something like this was before the 2001 Knowledge Wave conference, when a bunch of farmers told me there was no point trying to do any technical stuff from New Zealand because we're too small and too far away from our markets and we should just stick to what we know: cows.

The NZPC's report "Growing the digital economy in Australia and New Zealand" says we are too small and too far away from our markets to ever build viable digital economy in New Zealand and we should stop trying.

I had to check the calendar to make sure I hadn't slipped back to 1973.

Apparently instead of overcoming the tyranny of distance, all the internet has done is increase the "returns to scale and agglomeration" and since most innovation takes place in other countries we should just stop trying. Better to become a user of other people's technology instead.

So, sorry to all those start-ups I deal with every day. Thanks for trying but you can't possibly succeed so we needn't bother helping you out. Sorry Xero, sorry PowerbyProxi, sorry BoardPro and Vend, sorry about that. Your services are no longer required, please would the last one out turn off the lights.

It's appalling.

The tech sector in New Zealand is growing like topsy. Not all of the digital economy is sorted and set in stone. We haven't reached the edges yet of what is possible and as the report itself says, the digital economy largely IS the economy these days. There's plenty of scope for taking a lead, for developing and designing, for adopting New Zealand products and New Zealand services and New Zealand's companies are up there with the rest of the world in so many ways.

I know I'm preaching to the choir but honestly, in this day and age, to be told that we can't compete is just not on, and to have that come from a government agency? It's too much.

My only hope is that nobody bothers to implement any of the pointless recommendations, let alone read the damned thing.

NZ Herald - Government productivity report slammed for underplaying NZ ICT sector

Stuff - Govt slapping the wrong backs when it comes to tech innovation

Techblog - NZ never to rise above digital user: Govt report

Newsroom - Open to the future of work

Newsroom - Government innovation report ignores NZ tech


Making Connections

Two strange thoughts collided today. I suspect it's a result of re-watching James Burke's classic TV series Connections (or at least, a brief part of one of them - see below for the most perfectly timed live cross in the history of television) that made me conflate two issues.

First, my web browser and auto-play videos.

I hate auto-play videos. They presume too much, they auto-play only for the clicks (as useless a metric as ever there was), they break my concentration as I'm reading, they break the user experience ("I want to do this so I'll click on it" versus "I want to do something else so I'll move my mouse MOTHER OF GOD WHAT'S THAT NOISE") and generally they just annoy me.

Some bright spark suggested I get a plug-in to stop this from happening, so I did and realised that pretty much every plug in I've installed in the last year has been designed to remove functionality.

I have a plug in that blocks ads. I have another that tells me which stories on the Herald website are locally produced or are just wire copy from the Daily Mail or similar. I have another plug in that blocks Facebook from following my movements on sites (I don't use Facebook but Facebook does use traffic information from random websites to improve its service. No, Facebook. If you want my data you can pay me) and now I have one that stops videos from automatically playing.

I only seem to have two that add functionality - Better TweetDeck because it's better and my password manager.

The other thought was around China's proposed undersea base.

As a kid growing up in the 1970s I read and watched a lot of science fiction. I read everything I could get my hands on and it predicted a future I'm sure you're familiar with.

A moon base. Regular space travel. Deep sea research facilities. And all of them staffed and run and managed by Americans, and typically American men.

If you look at the Golden Age of science fiction we had everything from space plumbers (EE 'Doc' Smith) to space wizards (Star Wars) and all of it was American-centric.

We don't have a moon base. We don't have an undersea anything, except effluent run off. We don't seem to quite have that future nailed down yet (although I am pleased about the lack of flying cars. Trust me on this one), but New Scientist has a story about Chinese moves to build an undersea base, and we've seen a lot about China landing a probe on the dark side of the Moon.

This pleases me greatly because I do want to see us explore the inner and outer reaches and to push on to new frontiers.

But I do wonder now whether the two things aren't related. My US-centric world (and it is still very US-centric if I look around me at the things I do, the things I use and the things I think about) seems to have peaked with waiting for the next smartphone and better apps for harvesting data off me, and true exploration and advancement coming from other countries - notably India and China.

I'm not sure where this all leads of course. There are obvious concerns about China's growing strength given its approach to pesky things like civil rights and democracy, but at this point it's clearly ahead in terms of number of graduates produced each year, in terms of intellectual property and in terms of ambition. While the US looks ever inward, will this be the Century of the Dragon?

Connections - The best timed live cross ever

YouTube - Connections S01E01 (not sure if these are about to be pulled for copyright reasons but they're all there if you haven't seen them already)


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