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Life on the Web

Author: joe

Friday, 15 June, 2007 - 21:20

While I have the usual reservations about scientific positivism - not so much that it is a kind of imperialism, but rather that it is ultimately a totalising method, leaving little room for the qualitative experiences of people - I nevertheless have no sympathy for those nay-sayers, flatearthers, religious charlatans and general luddites who insist that anything that comes under the nomenclature of 'genetics' is FrankenBad.

Are we determined by nature? Are we determined by nurture? Why would the latter be so preferable to the former? Surely it is the 'determinism' itself that instils the fear. Or, if a creationist, why are you so reassured by the idea that you are determined by a God? How stultifying. And besides, why think of nature versus nurture, as though they are opposing ends of a spectrum? Why not think of nature and nurture as parallel determining, but open-ended, forces?

If the determinism of the physical laws of the universe is able to result in such a diverse and mind-boggling phenomenon as the universe itself with its dark matter, strange quarks, planetary nebulae, disc galaxies and comfortingly reliable gravity, why should we resent being also determined? Given that such determinism nevertheless is so convoluted as to produce the sense of agency that we so dearly cling to and to which we attribute our illusion of individuality, should we not be grateful for the laws that result in it? Wasn't Keats basically full of shit when he moaned about unweaving the rainbow? (I think that's a fair summary of Dawkins' book).

I say all this by way of pre-emptive defence. If you don't like an idea, the easiest way to attack it is to attack its author - and once you have dispensed with that author, all his subsequent ideas become anathema. E. O. Wilson, author of Sociobiology has incurred the wrath of the aforementioned nay-sayers, since his ideas can be caricatured as the basest form of genetic determinism - a gene for homosexuality, a gene for liking people called Alicia, a gene for grazing your knee when you're 12. Evolutionary psychology is an easy target for those who wish to further their own agenda - such as continental philosophers, proponents of the 'blank slate' (not in themselves objectionable, just intellectually weak as demonstrated by Pinker), cognitive scientists, sociologists with no knowledge of biology, and the like.

But I repeat - if there were, say, no gene for altruism after all, would we suddenly cease to bother being altruistic? And if there were found such a gene, would it mean our altruism were worthless? There is category error in abundance here.

So, having attempted to head off, at the pass, the common criticism of Wilson, I stand in awe at the project that is the Encyclopedia of Life. An electronic page on every species known to man. A collaborative project between a number of biological research institutions to make available to everyone our accumulated knowledge of earthly diversity:

When completed, will serve as a global biodiversity tool, providing scientists, policymakers, students, and citizens information they need to discover and protect the planet and encourage learning and conservation.

An excellent intervention of knowledge into the public domain, and an awesome implementation of the power of our network, the determinedly FrankenBad Internet.

Categories: science, biology, genetics, determinism, encyclopedia-of-life, sociobiology, agency, network, public-domain,
Comments: 0

BBC - this is what we do

Author: joe

Thursday, 07 December, 2006 - 18:41

And what do the BBC do? Editorialise and announce. That's what they're good at. Don't get me wrong, there is a place for the institutional voice, and of all the institutions I'll be sad to see go when anarchy finally reigns, it will be the BBC I'll mourn most. In fairness, the only other thing I'll mourn will be a constant supply of Irish Whiskey, since I imagine that when we surface in our future collective mutualism, Bushmills will be hard to source.

Radio 4 is, as Stephen Fry has already said, one of the pinnacles of human cultural achievement (well for an hour or so a day anyway). Its factual programming is excellent and illuminating in a middle-class sort of way. It's where I learn most of the UK political news that I consume, and as Mark Frauenfelder says on BoingBoing, 'In Our Time' is one of the best programmes available as a podcast produced by anybody in the world.

But the BBC doesn't know how not to editorialise and announce. Many commentators, especially in America, have lauded many of the announcements that come out of the BBC, citing it's funding structure and public service remit as a the reason why it is so ready to embrace participation and 'user generated content'. Actually, for all of these announcements, the beeb have failed to do much of it, and revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of what this so-called 'UGC' is really about.

What announcements were these?

October 2006: BBCi to showcase user's content. Right okay, where in the vast fray of people talking to each other on the internet did you get the overwhelming feeling that what they want was for their stuff to be 'showcased'? What are you, butterfly collectors now? When was the last time you went to a gallery to observe a conversation - indeed, how do you 'showcase' communication? Surely all you need to try to do is facilitate it? Sure this happens already on h2g2 and other talk boards hosted on BBCi, in a heavily moderated sort of way. Thanks for protecting us from ourselves. And what makes you think that the creations that people make need to be legitimised by your patronage?

September 2006: BBC sign a 'memo of understanding' with Microscoft. Ah, now here's a clue to the underlying thinking here. Microsoft, king of the embrace-and-extend technique, are called in to help you do your web services. On the surface, there's nothing wrong with seeing new stuff, and wanting to do the same thing better. Under the skin, all that's really there is institutionalisation and monolithic thinking. Microsoft's embrace-and-extend is really only about breaking and pulverising. Excuse me if waiting for this to happen doesn't give me the bends. Besides, the point is to do what you like, how you like.

May 2006: BBC & We-Media. Headlined as talking about 'a media revolution'. Talk on. A conference dominated by bitching about blogging vs journalism, with the BBC's Helen Boaden arguing that journalists sift facts, while bloggers are trying to 'steamroll' their subjective accounts of the world. Way to get all revolutionary.

April 2006: Creative Future of audience participation, so good they announced it (at least?) twice. Mark Thompson tells the world that BBC will spend six years transforming itself into something relevant to the digital age. Ashley Highfield chips in with plans for users to 'contribute'. Central to these announcements is the notion of audience participation and personalisation. Excellent plans. But do you really know how to do it? Honestly, I'd love to see you adopt this approach. But so far the evidence of your ability to deliver on these promises is scant, and I'm not the only one who thinks so...

March 2006: Reinventing web services. And of course, this is typical. Why do you need to reinvent them? They've already been invented. Make better ones. Was your Creative Archive, that brilliant experiment in delivering creative-commons-licensed, mashup-able clips of, um, penguins, proof of your prowess in getting in on the whole creative web thing? The point of these web-services is that they put an end to walled gardens of content. They let people make stuff and spread it around. You don't know how to do it, because it's the opposite of what you do. Remix the schedule? Gee thanks.

You see, after the 2005 We-Media conference, at which Richard Sambrook stated (listen to the 'We News' mp3 download) that he saw the future of BBC news as being a kind of 'framing organisation', harnessing the participation of the 'audience', I was really looking forward to seeing it happen. A few weeks later, Kevin Marsh, then editor of Radio 4's Today Programme, gave a talk at Bournemouth University (which, we were told, was supposed to be off-the-record, well sod them). I asked him about Sambrook's statement, and what plans were in place to start the process of embracing the audience and engaging with 'citizen-journalism'. He said that the BBC planned to sign up 100 people who would be non-professional, and provide them with the facilities to blog on the BBC website. Well, that's a great start. Unfortunately, that was a year ago, and if it happened, it was bloody quiet.

And what have we seen most recently? Your News. Whose news? Yours? Ours? Mine? Theirs? That's the first hint, I suppose. 'You' aren't 'us'. Here's us, over here, and there's you, over there. So I watched the first one when it launched on BBC News 24 a couple of weeks ago. I even showed the first few minutes to some undergraduates. We got a countdown of the top 10 stories, measured, I think, by number of comments generated on the BBC talk boards. It was backed by a bit of a racy jingle, which put me in mind of Mark Goodier doing the Sunday night top 40. In the first three minutes of this program there was none of my news, nothing of anyone's news. Just BBC editorialisation and patronisation. What the hell are you thinking? Who the fuck is going to watch this bollocks? Is the premise really that, having made ourselves some news, you'll deliver it back to us like some infinitely recurring mirror nightmare? Do we really need you to tell us what you noticed we gave a shit about? I tell you what, give us that fucking camera if you're not going to do anything useful with it...

As you can see, it actually made me angry.

BBC, I love you really, like I love my bookcase or my box of tapes, or my aging car. But please, just stop making all these fucking announcements! Oh, hang on, that's, um, what you do...

Categories: BBC, announcements, new-media, UGC, conversation, public-service-broadcasting,
Comments: 3