Cat Jots

…work in progress

Fact snacking on the Web

SF: Considering that Google is trying to collect and organise all of the world’s information, as well as make them accessible via their super-duper search algorithms, it seems an oxymoron to even think that Google could possibly be making us stupid. And yet, that is what Nicholas Carr’s essay in The Atlantic Magazine is suggesting.

One paragraph from “Is Google making us stupid?” reads, “Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. The Net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure.”

Carr had explained that the essay built on his book titled, “The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google”, and underlined the essential theme that technologies change us. While we may be reading more than say 15 years ago; thanks to the Internet, search engines, hyperlinks and so on; we are reading or consuming our media differently and different reading habits are forming – now we are skimming, bouncing from Web page to Web page, even “power browsing”. And with different reading habits, surely comes different ways of processing our information as well.

Tidbits of fast facts – never conclusive

So, is all this fast facts consumption without any intellectual effort, messing with our heads the way consuming fast food without having to cook it is messing with our waistlines? Steve Hodgkinson, Research Director, Ovum expanded on this train of thought during a telephone interview recently, saying also, “Google makes us seem smarter than we really are.”

He explains that people are not learning things as deeply as they used to with books in the past, because now they have the option of searching for things whenever they want them. As a result of instantly available fact snacking, people can become much more sophisticated about arguing and understanding things much more quickly at a certain level; even giving off the impression of being an expert about a certain topic.

This certainly beats rote learning and memorisation methods. Hodgkinson even says, “The most amazing thing is one’s ability to link apparently unrelated thoughts very quickly because one can search and establish linkages that are not apparent on the surface.”

But, when you think about it, one person’s capacity for knowledge is still limited to the keywords he/she think will lead them to answers (fallible, by the way) and then the search results on the first page (maybe even up to the fifth page if that person was gung-ho enough).

And why are people even accepting the results on the first page without question, anyway? One example I can think of is the recent experience I had with my passport renewal – if one was posed with the question of which immigration branch had the shortest queue, the first impulse would be to go search it up on the Internet. So, what then when all of Klang Valley gets the same result, and go to the same branch? Bye-bye, short queue, hello citizens of Klang Valley.

Critical wisdom – not a whole lot of it going around

There is possibility the results will right themselves over time because someone, somewhere will create a more updated document or web page, and these will get bumped up the search results list. But, this fact remains – search engine results are susceptible to flaws and don’t necessarily produce the answer, much less the relevant answer to a query.

And then as if that isn’t bad enough, Hodgkinson observes, “There is suspension of critical wisdom” and the risk that people dwell in only shallow knowledge is very real. In the short term, this may mean nothing at all. In the long run, however…“The danger of that at the extreme, is that things are perceived in that shallow, one-thing-leads-to-another kind of way, and this may give the appearance of progress and the appearance of vigour, when it’s not actually there. And then it all just comes unraveled at some point because the premise of something was actually wrong in the first place,” he points out.

He gives the example of the subprime crisis in the U.S., “…where there is a whole financial industry built on suspension of critical analysis of the financial products.” The ensuing financial meltdown is just a catastrophic example of where critical wisdom had been suspended in the pursuit of just introducing new products and making the sales numbers. “As long as everything keeps going forward like this, it all looks fine.” But, that’s only on the surface, Hodgkinson warns. “Only when something goes wrong, everybody starts to ask, ‘What substantiated those financial products in the first place anyway?’”

He sums up that, “Admiring it as a problem draws attention to the fact that it’s also good to keep practicing the traditional methods of knowledge sharing and conversations and critical wisdom, rather than just relying on everything on the first page of a Google search result.”

A society that’s beholden to the Web page?

Whatever that is found on a Web page, for that matter, isn’t necessarily the be all and end all of a person’s quest for information. Search engines are great research tools. Without them, I wouldn’t even have a clue of where to start. But, six years on and this is what I’ve learnt -not all topics have valid sources of authority. Not all valid sources of authority have the answers to all your questions. And topics which have no valid sources of authority have user generated content to fill the void.

Too often, my research on a certain topic turns up data which is out dated or incomplete or even just a rehash from another website because of the general nature of user-generated content and citizen journalism. Not all citizen journalists and bloggers rehash content or give shallow opinions, no. But, enough do.

Case in point – why be content with what one website reports what another website reports what a blog reports what another website reports what the prime minister said, if you have the chance to hear it first hand for yourself? And make your own conclusions. This works out well for anyone in the same line of work as me, but not everyone has the same motivations.

Experiences I’ve had with search engines, also reminds me how woefully lacking and incomplete resources on the Internet actually are – it might hold knowledge more than 20 libraries worth, yes. It might seem inexhaustible because we could never visit all the websites it holds in one lifetime, yes. But people seem to forget what exactly our Internet consists of, whenever they start their search for answers on it.

Sometimes, I wonder as well what goes up onto the World Wide Web. All I know is it isn’t all the information in the real world, even.

MyBroadband 2008

Just one year ago, our regulator body and ministry organised the MyBroadband 2007 event. (They took down the official website, and this was the only one with enough details).

It’s slightly late this year; slated for Oct 28-30th; but the run up to it is bigger and expectations are higher. This year, there is even a progressive theme attached to it – Going for Growth or G4G – with not just one but two places on the web you can go to learn more.

Bigger this year

Bigger this year

Best of all, instead of at the MATRADE building, which was tedious to get to, this year’s MyBroadband 2008 will be held in the heart of the city at KL Convention Centre itself.

Do check out the agenda and you’ll find that it’s definitely worth going for. I myself, gained some very valuable knowledge from last year’s event and I leave the two posts below
(MyBroadband 2007: There are wishlists and there are wishlists
and Malaysia to offer free wireless internet to 25 cities) for you to peruse through and decide for yourself.

Malaysia to offer free wireless internet in 25 cities

Malaysia’s government has launched an aggressive drive to lift its lowly broadband usage, with plans afoot for free WiFi broadband rollouts in 25 cities and public partnerships with the private sector to jointly underwrite new broadband infrastructure.

The plans were revealed at conference where Energy, Water & Communications Minister Lim Keng Yaik justified what he called a second nationwide broadband push by saying 3G had not been the tidal wave he expected to create a broadband boom, and had only caused “small ripples.” Also up for a rethink is a previous plan to achieve 90% broadband penetration in the central Klang Valley where Kuala Lumpur is situated in favour of a broader 50% penetration target for the entire country. In the light of this, the Klang Valley’s provincial overlord—the Selangor State Government—is considering amending the target to 75%.

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My BroadBand 2007: There are wish lists and there are wish lists

Last week I was at the MATRADE building for the MyBroadband 2007 conference. I thought it was valuable because the private and government sectors (among others) were all together in one place, at almost the same time. With regulators, analysts, ISPs and telcos there, I thought this would be a good opportunity to have a look see at what’s really ailing our national broadband usage. I mean there must be a reason we are the only country (I know of) to have online banners advertising how bad our service is?

The reasons were right there, just right beneath the surface. But I could not quite put my finger on and no one (that I’d met) wanted to talk about it.

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Broadband 2010

By Catherine Yong
SF: While broadband service offerings have been around for almost ten years in Malaysia, a national blueprint to give it any kind of context or direction has been around for only a few. When this blueprint called MyICMS appeared in 2006, there wasn’t any doubt at all that broadband was (to be) a necessary enabler for economic prosperity and not some exorbitant luxury to be enjoyed by only a select few.

So, ambitious targets were set. Malaysia gave itself five years to broadband-enable 75-percent of Malaysian households and anyone who has seen the document will also find objectives for other areas were defined within the MyICMS strategy.

MCMC Chairman, Halim Shafie, Communications Minister, Shaziman Abu Mansor, P1's Head of Tech, James Wong and P1 CEO, Michael Lai

MCMC Chairman, Halim Shafie, Communications Minister, Shaziman Abu Mansor

The year was 2006 when all these were announced. Come 2007, broadband subscriber figures hadn’t budged much despite all sorts of awareness campaigns and it was starting to become glaringly clear that Malaysian consumers weren’t yet convinced about broadband. Today, there are still over 4 million dial-up or narrowband users, surely a sign that although not all of Malaysia is connected to the Internet, a sizeable number of Malaysians do take nibbles at it; they just see no need or value to go all the way to a state of 24/7 broadband. And those who do, are frustrated with the level of service being offered.

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Clouds in the horizon

By Catherine Yong

SF: Microsoft predicts a fundamental shift in the way we are going to consume our services. Typically they’re hopping on the bandwagon complete with data centers, development tools, incubating cloud projects and all.


When Nigel Watling, Technical Evangelist for Microsoft Corp., began his presentation entitled “Messaging, Identity and Workflow in the Cloud”, he reminded attendees that a lot more announcements were due at Microsoft’s Professional Developer Conference (PDC) come end October.

Citing cloud computing as the next big thing and certainly one that Microsoft was going to get into, Watling said, “We’re building out these enormous data centers; there are something like 12 million square feet of data centers that’s being built.”

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The net – the way it’s meant to be

By Catherine Yong
Champor champor
Since the browser wars between Netscape Navigator and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) in the mid-90’s, development news coming from that area of Internet technology has been scarce, mostly revolving around security patches a browser managed to decrease from the year before and Internet Explorer versus Mozilla Firefox updates in typical good versus evil parody.

Needless to say, a product considered to be as un-sexy as the browser hardly stirs the kind of effortless interest other applications enjoy in the information technology universe. Google, however, didn’t seem to think so, and when it introduced the Chrome beta browser, it did so with a 38-page comic by professional illustrator, Scott McCloud.

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Getting the Internet to the open masses

By Catherine Yong

SF: Like a loving father who’d witnessed the birth of his child and it’s first few “baby” steps, co-founder of the Internet, Vinton Cerf painted a hopeful picture of what Internet technology could potentially be in the year 2035, enabling things like geo- location based services, remote controlled devices, gigabit access, a semantic Web, virtual meetings and consumer choice driven ads on Internet TV…the list just goes on. This list, sadly, may remain as only just that, with no hope whatsoever of ever becoming reality.

Guess who's car license plate

Guess who

Even access to the technology is dismal. All those years ago, the collaborative nature of the Internet saw it starting out with a purely academic purpose for around 50 000 users. Today, the Internet is on the cusp of being used for so much more benefit but its population numbers only 1.4 billion, still leaving the remaining global population of 5.2 billion unaccounted for. While presenting “Tracking the Internet into the 21st century” in Kuala Lumpur recently, Cerf started to pull out charts of climate change and population migration, presumably to give evidence that Asia is the most populous part of the Internet and by 2035, Internet content will (still) be influenced by this region’s population.

But he also expressed disappointment (or was it indignation?) that out of the millions of people on the Africa continent, only 5-percent were had access to the Web.

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If I could clone myself…

By Catherine Yong

One telling sign that a worldwide event has gotten ahead of itself is when any publication attempting to do a roundup of the whole event, will probably do so via bullet points. The recently ended World Congress on Information Technology or WCIT 2008 in Kuala Lumpur, was no different, and more than a few publications feeling the pinch of journalist resources, were wishing fervently that Craig Venter’s work in genomics involved human cloning as well.

I certainly wanted to clone myself when I saw what WCIT 2008 was serving up during the 3-day event at the KL Convention Centre – Vinton Cerf, Craig Venter, Craig Barret and Guy Kawasaki were there along with lots of other blokes who were important enough to have their own Wikipedia entries, big enough to warrant hologram presence or were simply well-respected members of equally well-respected and all-encompassing global organizations with noble objectives. For example, IMPACT, ITU, WITSA, so on and so forth.

The Great Debate on last day of WCIT 2008

The Great Debate on last day of WCIT 2008

That said, my sister who attended WCIT as a delegate, had googled up a web casted presentation by Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist, Vint Cerf and duly exclaimed, “Hey, didn’t he present this in KL too?” And when Bill appeared in hologram form, the official media room wasn’t abuzz with what Gates had said; which was suspected to be a rehash of his speech at Consumer Electronics Show 2008 and all other conferences thereafter anyway; instead all I found out were that holograms made him look fat.

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