a week in wireless

The idiosyncratic internet

One of the many great things about the internet is the freedom it allows. There are no constraints on space and distance, the cost of participation is very low and within the boundaries of the law, nothing is off-limits. The flip-side of all this lovely freedom is that anyone can participate, even strange people, and furthermore they’re also free to pass judgment on everything else.

Just this week the internet celebrated the 40th anniversary of The Rumble In The Jungle, in which Mohammad Ali reclaimed the world heavyweight boxing title from the seemingly unstoppable George Foreman by inviting one of the hardest punchers in history to hit him until he got knackered. New generations are introduced to this golden pugilistic era thanks to the internet and we all get to reflect on the unique appeal of Ali.

On a slightly more frivolous note, the ultimate internet pastime – sharing photos and videos of cats doing undignified things – is now so big it has its own travelling festival. The Internet Cat Video Festival has been touring the US for a couple of years now and shows no sign of losing momentum. Without the internet, the Informer would also not be aware of the ultimate accessory for anyone attending this event: the Neurowear Shippo, which is a prosthetic wearable tail that wags when your heart-rate increases.

While it’s just about possible to imagine the appeal of conveying your feeling via such a device, most Internet participants tend to leave little doubt about the strength of their feelings. Perhaps the best focus for instant ire is Twitter, which seems to be infested with armies of freelance puritans just waiting for the chance to be outraged at something.

Of celebrities are usually the focus of the net’s baying mobs, so when Robbie Williams published a sequence of tweets documenting his wife’s labour, jokingly implying he was the one doing all the work, Twitter was incensed. When Jeremy Clarkson, who clearly derives sport from provoking the mob, tweeted he was driving with a beer in the cup holder, howls of indignation were heard the world over. Sometimes it can get even more serious, with footballer Rio Ferdinand banned for three days for insulting one of his Twitter critics.

But the internet is not all trolls and lunatics. The recent Broadband Infovision Awards were hosted by the glamorous presenter of BBC Click – LJ Rich – and she chose to illustrate the wonder of broadband by detailing some of cool things she has discovered on the internet.

“I topped up on maths skills at Khan Academy, practiced my Chinese characters on Chineasy.org and read about the Hollywood movie business model from Harvard business report,” said Rich. “I learned how to use a soldering iron on YouTube and how to make my own battery powered mobile phone charger. I collaborated with fellow composers to make many-layered music, learned how to clean a vinyl record with wood glue and how to take a radiator off a wall online. I also had to learn pretty quickly how to put a radiator back on the wall again.

“This last example highlights something I find really intriguing. Right now we access ‘thin slices of virtuosity by learning a tiny piece of a larger skillset instantly with the wonder that is the World Wide Web. Even with all the knowledge and data available and accessible in seconds on a fast connection, those thin seams of expert knowledge are still no substitute for knowing a field inside out.

duty calls“How we use technology to connect with others gives us the potential to pool those thin slices of virtuosity. Tagging our content and learning how to query search engines effectively can give us all a much richer experience online when we need to find something quickly. But expert knowledge, collaboration, friendship and the ability to transfer skills learnt from one area to a completely different area? That still seems to be a uniquely human ability – at least for now.”

While the internet allows people to share their expertise easily, it also gives everyone, however ill-informed, a voice. In order to get heard among the global cacophony of the web, dilettante pundits feel compelled to be ever more shrill and dogmatic. To close this week the Informer leaves you with a clip from Mitchell and Webb and a cartoon from xkcd, which nicely send-up the armchair punditry the internet seems to compel us all to partake in.

Take care.

The Informer

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