Open Thinkering


Month: May 2014

Weeknote 22/2014

Doug Belshaw at #digitalcurrency event

This week I’ve been:

  • Working only two days. Monday was a public holiday in the UK, and then I had to take Thursday and Friday off to look after my children after my wife was bed-ridden with ‘flu.
  • Meeting up with colleagues at #MozLDN. It turned out that most of our team was in town for various things, so we took the opportunity to huddle for a couple of hours.
  • Collaborating with Code Club. On Tuesday afternoon, Laura and I worked with them to find ways in which they could improve their HTML/CSS offerings using Webmaker.
  • Participating in a #digitalcurrency event at the University of Oxford. Organised by Dave White and Cristobal Cobo, the organising question was What does it mean to be an ‘expert’ in the Web era? My link-filled post I used as a reference point can be found here.
  • Sorting out plans for Mozilla’s contribution to the Sunday Times Festival of Education next month.
  • Updating my iterative e-book The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies to v0.99.
  • Enjoying a burger with Vinay Gupta and Oliver Quinlan. Topics of conversation included web literacy, $25 smartphones, hexayurts, and what happens when child geniuses discover the web for the first time.
  • Writing about the problem of individually responding to a structural problem we all have about ‘free’ services and their relation to data security and our privacy.

Next week I’m looking forward to catching up with stuff after my unexpected couple of days off work. Once that’s done, it’ll be getting an overdue Webmaker whitepaper out the door, finalising the Webmaker Mentor badge, and getting started with Web Literacy badges!

Image by Hannah Gore

So here’s the problem…

Note: I’m kind of riffing off Everything Is Broken here. You should read that first.

I often think about leaving Twitter; about turning my annual Black Ops hiatus into something more… permanent.

The trouble is, I can’t.

I don’t mean in terms of “I don’t have it in me”, or “I’d prefer a better platform”. I mean that, if I did leave Twitter, I wouldn’t be able to fulfil my current role to the standard people have come to expect. In other words, there would be a professional cost to me not using a public, private space to communicate with others.

In fact, the same goes with Skype, Google+, and other proprietary tools: I could switch, but there’s de facto standards at work here. If you don’t use what everyone else does, then you either (a) suffer a productivity hit, or (b) cause other people problems. Sometimes, it’s both.

By a ‘productivity hit’, I mean there’s a cognitive and cultural overhead of using tools outside the norm. I spoke to one person the other day – not a Mozilla employee – who said that their company’s commitment to security, privacy and Open Source software significantly hampers their productivity. In other words, they were trading some ease-of-use and productivity for data ownership, privacy and security.

By ’cause other people problems’ I mean that, particularly in the fast-moving world I inhabit, you don’t want to be slowed down by negotiations around which technology to use. Much as I’d love to migrate to WebRTC-powered apps such as, the truth is that Skype pretty much works every time. You can rely on almost everyone having it installed.*

It used to be easier to understand. Companies would sell their software which you would install on your computer. Most ‘free’ software was also ‘Open Source’ and available under a permissive license. Now, however, everything is free, and the difference between the following is confusing for the end user:

  • Free as in beer – you get this thing for free, but there’s a catch! (the company is mining and/or selling your personal data to advertisers/insurers)
  • Free as in speech – you get this thing for free, and you can inspect the code and use it for pretty much whatever you want.

As Vinay Gupta often puts it, a lot of the free apps and software we’re accessing these days are a form of legalised spyware. The only reason we don’t call it that is because the software providing the services and doing the spying resides on their servers. Our shorthand for this is ‘the cloud’.

The trouble is, and let’s be honest here, that apart from the big hitters like Ubuntu and Firefox, the the free-as-in-beer software tends to have better UX than the free-as-in-speech software. It’s not enough to have stand-alone apps and software any more – customers demand that services talk to one another. And rightly so. The problem is that unless you’re burning through VC cash or selling user data to advertisers, it’s difficult to fund this kind of stuff. Someone or something has got to pay for the servers.

To conclude, I’m kind of done with thinking of this as an individual problem for me to solve in isolation. Yes, I could sit on an island by myself running BSD and only using super-secure and private apps/services. But I’d be a pariah. What we’ve got here is a cultural, not a technological, problem: it’s something for us all to fix:

It wouldn’t take a total defection or a general revolt to change everything, because corporations and governments would rather bend to demands than die. These entities do everything they can get away with — but we’ve forgotten that we’re the ones that are letting them get away with things.

The above quotation is from the article I suggested that you read at the top of this post. If you still haven’t done so yet, then read it when you finish this one.

Remember: there’s not loads we can do in isolation – especially given the mindboggling complexity of the whole system. But we can talk with others about the situation in which we find ourselves. We can weave it into our conversations. We can join together in solidarity and, where there’s opportunities, we can take informed action.

All of us need to up our game when it comes to the digital literacies and web literacy necessary to operate in this Brave New World. We shouldn’t be embarrassed about this in any way. After all, we’re collectively making it up as we go along.

*I think of Skype a bit like LinkedIn. No-one’s over the moon about using it, but until everyone migrates somewhere else, it’s what we’re stuck with.

v0.99 of ‘The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies’ now available! [E-BOOK]

The Essential Elements of Digital LiteraciesI’m delighted to announce that the latest iteration of my e-book The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies is now available. This takes us to v0.99! The text is 99% complete, with only a small appendix to write. I also need to work on some design elements.

Those who invested in previous versions have already received their free update, according to the OpenBeta process I devised (or at least they should have done – ping me if not!)

You can invest in v0.99 and then get the update to v1.0 by clicking below:

v1.0 is coming on June 27th!

What’s included in this version?

  • About
  • Preface
  • Contents
  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Chapter 2: What’s the problem?
  • Chapter 3: Everything is ambiguous
  • Chapter 4: Why existing models of digital literacy don’t work
  • Chapter 5: The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies
  • Chapter 6: Curiosity created the LOLcat
  • Chapter 7: Remix: the heart of digital literacies
  • Chapter 8: Coding and the web
  • Chapter 9: Conclusion
  • Appendix: What to do next

I’d like to thank Liesl Scheepers (South Africa), Vicky Teinaki (New Zealand via Newcastle), and Penny Wheeler (Australia) for their very quick feedback on this iteration. It’s much appreciated.

Got questions? I might have answered them in this post announcing the e-book! Please note: I’m exploring payment options other than Paypal for v1.0.

Book cover background CC BY pranav