The Guardian: farewell to a great editor

The Guardian: farewell to a great editor

I’m not sure exactly when I began to be a regular reader of the Guardian – certainly soon after starting at university in 1967. But I had always appreciated investigative journalism and good newspaper design: at home in the sixties I would read The Sunday Times, excited by its colour magazine and relishing the work of the Insight investigative team. When Harold Evans took over as editor in 1967 his appointment simply confirmed the newspaper’s status as the leader in investigate reporting, photojournalism and elegant design. Continue reading “The Guardian: farewell to a great editor”

The Circle: so cool, but closing in on our private lives

The Circle: so cool, but closing in on our private lives

Google campus scene 1

Google campus, California: illustration by Karl Edwards Studio

The revelations contained in the Snowden files alerted us to power of government surveillance to use the web to break our privacy and track our every move, our thoughts.  Tim Berners-Lee told the Guardian last year:

When you think about privacy you have to think about how intimate our use of technology has become. When someone is worried about a social or medical issue, about their sexuality or whether they have cancer, they can put their trust in the complete secrecy of the web. Maybe they are a minor, and too embarrassed to go through their parents. It’s important to preserve the ability to do things over the internet that are very intimate.

But what if the real threat to our privacy – indeed, our freedom – comes from the powerful corporations that now dominate the internet?  That is the question at the heart of Dave Eggers’ latest novel, The Circle, a book so powerful and thought-provoking that I feel  everyone should read it.  (The issue is also the subject of ‘The death of privacy‘, a lengthy and thoughtful essay by Alex Preston in today’s Observer.

Dave Eggers The Circle cover

The Circle

In The Circle Dave Eggers imagines an internet company that we will all probably think of as Google, operating out of a shiny campus in southern California. However, Eggers’ company – called the Circle – has swallowed all its tech competitors and streamlined search and social media into one system that’s enabled it to rapidly become the biggest, richest and most powerful corporation on the planet. Setting his story in the very near future (weeks? months?), Eggers has written a novel that zips along and which raises urgent questions about the accumulation of data by private corporations, about surveillance, and transparency.  When you put the book down you realise that it’s not just NSA and GCHQ surveillance that should concern us.  We ought to be reading those long and boring t&c’s that we blithely tick ‘yes’ to when signing up to Google or Facebook, iTunes or Instagram.

In an article earlier this year,Salon magazine outlined ‘4 insane ways Google has been invading our privacy’.  The internet giant can already ‘vacuum up, scan, index and sell analytics based on the content of our texts, emails, searches, locations and more’, but now, with the purchase of Nest, a company selling wifi-controlled home appliances, Google now aims to track us not just in our homes, ‘but at work, in our cars and even when we’re walking down the street’.

‘The acquisition will help Google close the circle of search, people and goods in a broad Internet of Everything,’  wrote Wall Street Journal editor Michael Hickins. ‘With home automation, self-driving cars, robots, mobile, and life sciences, Google is setting itself up to own the 21st century.’

‘Closing the circle’ is the aim of the company at the heart of Eggers’ novel.  As the mysterious, subversive figure of Kalden puts it towards the end of the story:

I want you to connect these dots and see if you see what I see. Picture this. The Circle has been devouring all competitors for years, correct? It only makes the company stronger. Already, 90 percent of the world’s searches go through the Circle. Without competitors, this will increase. Soon it’ll be nearly 100 percent. Now, you and I both know that if you can control the flow of information, you can control everything. You can control most of what anyone sees and knows. If you want to bury some piece of information, permanently, that’s two seconds’ work. If you want to ruin anyone, that’s five minutes’ work. How can anyone rise up against the Circle if they control all the information and accesss to it? They want everyone to have a Circle account, and they’re well on  their way to making it illegal not to. What happens then? What happens when they control all searches, and have full access to all data about every person? When they know every move everyone makes? If all monetary transactions, all health and DNA information, every piece of one’s life, good or bad, when every word uttered flows through one channel?’

Referring to Bailey and Stenton, two of the ‘Three Wise Men’ who founded the company, Kalden continues:

Bailey believes that life will be better, will be perfect, when everyone has unfettered access to everyone and everything they know. He genuinely believes that the answers to every life question can be found among other people. He truly believes that openness, that complete and uninterrupted access among all humans will help the world. That this is what the world’s been waiting for, the moment when every soul is connected.

Stenton professionalized our idealism, monetized our utopia. He’s the one who saw the connection between our work and politics, and between politics and control. Public-private leads to private-private, -soon you have the Circle running most or even all government services, with incredible private-sector efficiency and an insatiable appetite. Everyone becomes a citizen of the Circle.

That reminded me of an essay written for the London Review of Books last year by Rebecca Solnit in which she remarked:

We are moving into a world of unaccountable and secretive corporations that manage all our communications and work hand in hand with governments to make us visible to them. Our privacy is being strip-mined and hoarded.

Dave Eggers’ The Circle is both utopia and dystopia. For the central character, Mae, the Circle campus, beautifully manicured, with steel and glass buildings, each named after an historical era (‘Renaissance’, ‘Enlightenment’), and with every need met (places of entertainment, places to meet and party, shop, exercise, or have a health check), is a utopia.

My God, Mae thought.  It’s heaven.

But before long, Eggers’ begins to reveal the dystopian reality of the Circle.  I particularly admired the way in which Eggers points up the exploitative labour relations that underpin the Circle’s glossy façade.   On her first day, Mae is introduced to her duties in customer experience.  She sits at the customary desk facing a screen and, once she has ‘opened the chute’, deals with an endless flood of support requests.  All her responses are monitored and rated.  Her supervisor tells her that she needs to aim for a rating score in the high nineties: ’99 is good, but I can’t help wondering why it’s not 100′.

During Mae’s first week at the workstation, more screens are added.  In addition to fielding support requests, she must simultaneously participate in both intra-company and external social networks because (as she learns in a wickedly satirical episode) ‘communication is not extracurricular’.  Her activity on social networks is integral to her work, and is monitored.  The Circle has absorbed some Facebook-like entity where participants ‘zing’ each other.  By the end of her first week, Mae is dealing with four screens (and her mobile) and is expected to maintain a high level of zings – her ‘Partirank’ in the company depends upon it.  Implicit in the atmosphere of the campus is the notion that if you are truly loyal to the Circle you will work long hours (striving to rise up the Partirank ratings), and preferably not leave the campus at all. (Anyway, why would you want to return to the public squalor that exists outside?)

Indeed, the campus is another world, compared to the public utility company Mae used to work for:

The utility building, 3B-East, was a tragic block of cement with narrow vertical slits for windows. Inside, most of the offices were walled with cinderblock, everything painted a sickly green. It was like working in a locker room. She’d been the youngest person in the building by a decade or so, and even those in their thirties were of a different century. They marvelled at her computer skills, which were basic and common to anyone she knew. But her co-workers at the utility were astounded. They called her the Black Lightning, some wilted reference to her hair, and told her she had quite a bright future at the utility if she played her cards right. In four or five years, they told her, she could be head of IT for the whole sub-station!

There are sharp echoes of Orwell’s 1984 (‘War is peace’. ‘Freedom is slavery’. ‘Ignorance is strength’) in Eggers’ depiction of the slogans that pepper very few yards of the campus (remember Google’s motto, ‘Don’t be evil’?): ‘Secrets are lies’. ‘Sharing is Caring’. ‘Privacy is theft’.  Circlers are regularly brought together for consciousness-raising sessions before giant screens from which the company’s leaders expound their philosophy and the latest technological breakthrough.  The Circle’s mantra is ‘ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN’, a philosophy whose implications Eggers pushes to the limits in order to expose the dangers in what is happening – now – on the internet.

Mae’s ex, Mercer, is a symbol of the old world and its restraints from which she has escaped.  Eggers gives Mercer some good lines:

I mean, all this stuff you’re involved in, it’s all gossip. It’s people talking about each other behind their backs. That’s the vast majority of this social media, all these reviews, all these comments. Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication. And besides that, it’s fucking dorky. … Listen, twenty years ago … judgements like ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ and ‘smiles’ and ‘frowns’ were limited to junior high. Someone would write a note and it would say, ‘Do you like unicorns and stickers?’ and you’d say, ‘Yeah, I like unicorns and stickers! Smile!’ That kind of thing. But now it’s not just junior high kids who do it, it’s everyone, and it seems to me sometimes I’ve entered some inverted zone, some mirror world where the dorkiest shit in the world is completely dominant. The world has dorkified itself.’

To which Mae’s response is simply:

Mercer, is it important to you to be cool?

But Mercer has no wish to be cool – prefers not to advertise the chandeliers he carves from deer antlers on the web, has no interest in participation on social media, or being tied to screens for a good part of the day.  He just wants to get away from all that – with tragic consequences.

Google campus scene 2

Google campus, California: illustration by Karl Edwards Studio

Meanwhile, Mae learns the importance of 24/7 social media interaction and transparency when she is hauled before supervisors to explain a ‘lost weekend’ when she rushed off to her parents’ home after learning that her father had fallen ill.  Mae is informed that she ‘left campus at 5.42 on Friday’ and ‘returned at 8.46 on Monday’, yet left no trace of herself in cyberspace in all that time.

‘Was there work on the weekend? Did I miss something?’ asks Mae.  But what concerns her supervisors is her her failure to observe another Circle mantra: PPT.  Passion, participation, transparency.  What did she do while at her parents house? She watched women’s basketball.  Did you know we have a zing feed about the WNBA?  ‘I’m not that passionate about basketball’, responds Mae, stunning her inquisitors.  When she informs them that on her way home she took a kayak out into the bay alone, but did not zing news of her activity, or switch on her SeeChange video camera, they are appalled.  ‘I was just kayaking’, pleads Mae.  They respond: ‘Do you realize kayaking is a multi-million dollar industry?’

Strictly speaking, Mae stole the kayak, since it was midnight, and she took one left outside the rental compound.  When she returns to shore, police are waiting for her: removing the kayak, she had been picked up on one of the Circle’s SeeChange cameras.  This incident later informs a passage in which Eggers explores the question of transparency versus privacy. In one of the company’s briefing sessions, Mae is being questioned before a giant screen by one of the company founders:

“I have a question, Mae. Do you behave better or worse when you’re being watched?”

“Better. Without a doubt.”

“When you’re alone, unwatched, unaccountable, what happens?”

“Well, for one thing, I steal kayaks.”

The audience laughed in a sudden bright burst.

“Seriously. I do things I don’t want to do. I lie.”

“The other day, when we spoke, you had a way of putting it that I thought was very interesting and succinct. Can you tell us all what you said?”

”I said that secrets are lies.”

“Secrets are lies. It’s very memorable. Can you walk us through your logic with that phrase, Mae?”

”Well, when there’s something kept secret, two things happen. One is that it make,s crimes possible. We behave worse when we’re not accountable. That goes without saying. And second, secrets inspire speculation. When we don’t know what’s being hidden, we guess, we make up answers.”

“Well that’s interesting, isn’t it?” Bailey turned to the audience. ”When we can’t reach a loved one, we speculate. We panic. We make up stories about where they are or what’s happened to them. And if we’re feeling ungenerous, or jealous, we make up lies. Sometimes some very damaging lies. We assume they’re doing something nefarious. All because we don’t know something. ”

“It’s like when we see two people whispering,” Mae said. “We worry, we feel insecure, we make up terrible things they might be saying. We assume it’s about us and that it’s catastrophic.” […]

“For example, if there’s a locked door, I start to make up all kinds of stories about what might be behind it. I feel like it’s some kind of secret, and it leads to me making up lies. But if all the doors areopen, physically and metaphorically, there’s only the one truth.”

Bailey smiled. She’d nailed it.

”I like that, Mae. When the doors are open, there’s only one truth.

The words SECRETS ARE LIES appeared on the screen behind Mae.  Seeing the words four feet tall gave her a complicated feeling – something between thrill and dread.

The session ends with three lines projected on the giant screen:




Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers

In The Circle, Eggers offers us a warning that Facebook, Google, Apple and the rest are leading us down a path which may ultimately cost us our rights to privacy and lead to every aspect of our lives being monitored, monetized and potentially controlled by giant private corporations.  As well as 1984The Circle reminded me of Huxley’s soma eaters in Brave New World. Where Huxley has the inhabitants of his perfect society blissed-out on their happiness-inducing pleasure-drug, oblivious to their control by the Alphas of the World State, Eggers paints a seductive portrait of the Circle campus in the bright Californian sun, where clever people invent new but threatening technologies in high tech glass and steel buildings, driven by the evangelical idealism of the Circle’s founding fathers.  But behind the day-glo facade lies darkness:

And there was a wonderful thing that tended to happen, something that felt like poetic justice: every time someone started shouting about the supposed monopoly of the Circle, or the Circle’s unfair monetization of the personal data of its users, or some other paranoid and demonstrably false claim, soon enough it was revealed that that person was a criminal or deviant of the highest order […] And it made sense. Who but a fringe character would try to impede the unimpeachable improvement of the world?

In today’s Observer essay, Max Mosley (a man for whom I would not usually have much sympathy) is quoted as saying (apropos of his current challenge to Google in the German courts to remove references to a ‘Nazi orgy’ that the News of the World splashed in a report later ruled in court to be lies):

I think, because of the Stasi the Germans can understand that there isn’t a huge difference between the state watching everything you do and Google watching everything you do. Except that, in most European countries, the state tends to be an elected body, whereas Google isn’t. There’s not a lot of difference between the actions of the government of East Germany and the actions of Google.

That’s a pretty good summary of the case put by Eggers in his fiction.  As Alex Preston comments in the Observer piece, we need to ask some fundamental questions about the role of search engines:

Is Google the de facto librarian of the internet, given that it is estimated to handle 40% of all traffic? Is it something more than a librarian, since its algorithms carefully (and with increasing use of your personal data) select the sites it wants you to view? To what extent can Google be held responsible for the content it puts before us?

But Google is more than a search engine.  It has developed Google Glass which enables wearers to surreptitiously film unsuspecting bystanders. It stores the content and details of email communications of millions of people (individual Gmail users, as well as employees of companies who contract Google to operate their email service – and users, like me of Virgin Media email, also operated by Google).  And, by means of Google maps and its Android operating system it can track our movements and transactions.  Towards the end of The Circle, Mae, challenged by the mysterious Kalden, exclaims:

”That’s so bad? If’everyone has equal access to services, to information, we finally have a chance at equality. No information should cost anything. There should be no barriers to knowing everything, to accessing all – ”

“And if everyone’s tracked?”

“Then there’s no crime. No murder, no kidnapping and rape. No kids ever victimized again. No more missing persons. I mean, that alone – ”

The Circle is cracks along like a thriller, its straightforward plot unhindered by character complexity.  But it’s an important – and disturbing – book for our time.  I think you should read it.

See also

Rebecca Solnit: ‘our privacy is being strip-mined and hoarded’

Rebecca Solnit: ‘our privacy is being strip-mined and hoarded’

People on phones

Rebecca Solnit has written an elegaic piece in the current London Review of Books that now and again also reveals a deep, yet controlled anger.  The article (unfortunately only available online to subscribers) gives voice to a sense of loss felt, at least by those of us of a certain age, about the encroachment of the the internet, mobile phones and the various forms of instant communication that, in little more than a decade, have profoundly changed the way we live and relate to each other.  She begins:

When I think about, say, 1995, or whenever the last moment was before most of us were on the internet and had mobile phones, it seems like a hundred years ago. Letters came once a day, predictably, in the hands of the postal carrier. News came in three flavours – radio, television, print – and at appointed hours. Some of us even had a newspaper delivered every morning. Those mail and newspaper deliveries punctuated the day like church bells. You read the paper over breakfast. If there were developments you heard about them on the evening news or in the next day’s paper. You listened to the news when it was broadcast, since there was no other way to hear it. A great many people relied on the same sources of news, so when they discussed current events they did it under the overarching sky of the same general reality. Time passed in fairly large units, or at least not in milliseconds and constant updates.

While previous technologies have expanded communication, those that have exploded into our lives since the 1990s may be contracting it, Solnit argues:

The eloquence of letters has turned into the unnuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.

I live in the heart of it, and it’s normal to walk through a crowd – on a train, or a group of young people waiting to eat in a restaurant – in which everyone is staring at the tiny screens in their hands. It seems less likely that each of the kids waiting for the table for eight has an urgent matter at hand than that this is the habitual orientation of their consciousness. At times I feel as though I’m in a bad science fiction movie where everyone takes orders from tiny boxes that link them to alien overlords. Which is what corporations are anyway, and mobile phones decoupled from corporations are not exactly common.

For Solnit, these changes have brought a profound a sense of loss ‘for a quality of time we no longer have, and that is hard to name and harder to imagine reclaiming’:

My time does not come in large, focused blocks, but in fragments and shards. The fault is my own, arguably, but it’s yours too – it’s the fault of everyone I know who rarely finds herself or himself with uninterrupted hours. We’re shattered. We’re breaking up.

In previous essays, Solnit has written of how the new technologies brought good things: many people found expression free of censorship; instant communication facilitated political opposition (Facebook playing a part in the Arab Spring’s initial phase in 2011, Twitter in spreading the Occupy movement, while WikiLeaks grasped the opportunity to disseminate across the globe truths about how power is wielded).  But now she feels a deep sense of unease:

We were not so monitored, because no one read our letters the way they read our emails to sell us stuff, as Gmail does, or track our communications as the NSA does. We are moving into a world of unaccountable and secretive corporations that manage all our communications and work hand in hand with governments to make us visible to them. Our privacy is being strip-mined and hoarded.


Between you and me stands a corporation every time we make contact – not just the post office or the phone company, but a titan that shares information with the National Security Administration – is dismaying. But that’s another subject: mine today is time.

Young Man Reading by Candlelight by Matthias Stom
Young Man Reading by Candlelight by Matthias Stom (Dutch, mid 17th century)

The young, Solnit laments, ‘are disappearing down the rabbit hole of total immersion in the networked world, and struggling to get out of it’. Getting out of it is, she argues, will be about slowness, and about finding alternatives:

Alternatives to the alienation that accompanies a sweater knitted by a machine in a sweatshop in a country you know nothing about, or jam made by a giant corporation that has terrible environmental and labour practices and might be tied to the death of honeybees or the poisoning of farmworkers. It’s an attempt to put the world back together again, in its materials but also its time and labour. …  Right now we need to articulate these subtle things, this richer, more expansive quality of time and attention and connection, to hold onto it. Can we? The alternative is grim, with a grimness that would be hard to explain to someone who’s distracted.

Solnit has argued the case for ‘slowness as an act of resistance’ before: in an essay published in Orion magazine in 2007 she wrote:

Ultimately, I believe that slowness is an act of resistance, not because slowness is a good in itself but because of all that it makes room for, the things that don’t get measured and can’t be bought.

The title of a collection of essays by Rebecca Solnit, published in 2008, was Storming the Gates of Paradise. Perhaps the time will come when we will need to storm the gates of the behemoths – Microsoft, Google, Apple, and the rest – that have dazzled us with their paradisal products.

‘You can go beyond’

Good news seems so hard to come by, and sometimes you fear to believe in it when you read it.  Let me begin by recalling the opening of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch, the winner of the 1998 Guardian First Book Award that bore testimony to the Rwandan genocide:

In the province of Kibungo, in eastern Rwanda, in the swamp-and pastureland near the Tanzanian border, there’s a rocky hill called Nyarubuye with a church where many Tutsis were slaughtered in mid-April of 1994. A year after the killing I went to Nyarubuye with two Canadian military officers. We flew in a United Nations helicopter, travelling low over the hills in the morning mists, with the banana trees like green starbursts dense over the slopes. The uncut grass blew back as we dropped into the centre of the parish schoolyard. A lone soldier materialized with his Kalashnikov, and shook our hands with stiff, shy formality. The Canadians presented the paperwork for our visit, and I stepped up into the open doorway of a classroom.

At least fifty mostly decomposed cadavers covered the floor, wadded in clothing, their belongings strewn about and smashed. Macheted skulls had rolled here and there. The dead looked like pictures of the dead. They did not smell. They did not buzz with flies. They had been killed thirteen months earlier, and they hadn’t been moved. Skin stuck here and there over the bones, many of which lay scattered away from the bodies, dismembered by the killers, or by scavengers-birds, dogs, bugs.

The more complete figures looked a lot like people, which they were once. A woman in a cloth wrap printed with flowers lay near the door. Her fleshless hip bones were high and her legs slightly spread, and a child’s skeleton extended between them. Her torso was hollowed out. Her ribs and spinal column poked through the rotting cloth. Her head was tipped back and her mouth was open: a strange image-half agony, half repose.

I had never been among the dead before. What to do? Look? Yes. I wanted to see them, I suppose; I had come to see them – the dead had been left unburied at Nyarubuye for memorial purposes – and there they were, so intimately exposed. I didn’t need to see them. I already knew, and believed, what bad happened in Rwanda. Yet looking at the buildings and the bodies, and hearing the silence of the place, with the grand Italianate basilica standing there deserted, and beds of exquisite, decadent, death-fertilized flowers blooming over the corpses, it was still strangely unimaginable. I mean one still had to imagine it.

Those dead Rwandans will be with me forever, I expect. That was why I had felt compelled to come to Nyarubuye: to be stuck with them – not with their experience, but with the experience of looking at them. They had been killed there, and they were dead there. What else could you really see at first?

Now today I read in The Observer that Rwanda has a plan to prevent a return to the genocide of 1994 by connecting its children to the outside world with their own laptops. The gizmo in question is an object 10 inches square, green, white and rubberised, inscribed with the logo of an X and a filled-in O:

The Rwandan government intends to provide 100,000 Rwandan children between the ages of nine and 12 with one of these gadgets, and has a vision not only of the transformation of an impoverished agrarian society into one of the most advanced in Africa, but also of technology as a tool that will help exorcise the country’s lingering ghosts. The genocide that took place in this country in 1994 deprived many of these children of uncles, aunts, grandparents. During 100 days of killing, 800,000 minority ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in service of so-called ‘Hutu Power’, documented so chillingly in Gourevitch’s book.

The XO machines are supplied by One Laptop Per Child (1.4 million have already been delivered to children in 35 countries including Haiti, Afghanistan, Brazil and Uruguay). The organisation’s mission statement is to create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children via a rugged low-cost, low-power laptop. Rwanda, with its shortages of electricity and lower internet connectivity are driving One Laptop Per Child to develop even cheaper and tougher machines with ever lower power consumption. The next generation of computers will be usable even where there is no mains power at all. At the heart of their programme is the idea of ‘joyful, playful and innovatory’ learning.

The Rwandan government wants to encourage rapid economic development by educating these children to be computer-literate. But there is also a notion that these laptops might help to vaccinate a society still in painful recovery from its genocidal past by opening up the rest of the world to a new generation. David Cavallo, the project director for One Laptop Per Child, talks about Jean Piaget, the educational psychologist who believed education to be ‘capable of saving our societies from possible collapse’. It is an ex-student of Piaget’s, Seymour Papert, mathematician and education and technology theorist, who is the inspiration for the XO. Papert was a political refugee from apartheid South Africa who fled to England and finally America where he became one of the founders of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Papert has long argued that children in all societies can master computing and, by doing so, transform how they learn throughout their lives, inside and outside the classroom and, consequently alter societies. He is a longstanding enemy of what he sees as the tyranny of formal education systems which he believes equip children only to master set syllabuses. Papert believes that computers can enable children to learn how to learn for themselves through playful problem-solving and that this will lead to their becoming better-rounded human beings.

Peter Beaumont, the author of the Observer feature, tells of being driven by Samuel Dusengiyumva, a 28-year-old consultant with One Laptop Per Child, to the genocide memorial in Nyamata, the church where 10,000 Rwandans were blasted with grenades then hacked to death in April 1994 – the place where Philip Gourevitch opens his book. Dusengiyumva tells Beaumont what schooling was like before the genocide and after, and how lack of education contributed to mass murder. He is a firm believer in what the XO can do, in particular its promise for opening up a society that was once lethally closed:

You know the problem with having a poor education is that you are not given the faculties to cross-check information, not given access to information. Our society, before the genocide, was not open. Now I can go on the internet. I can check what I am being told. I can make my own analysis.  I remember a text that I learned at school. It said you go to school to learn how to learn. If you can enable people in society… with computers… you release the human potential. You can go beyond.

An ordinary place: the church at Nyamata turned into a memorial, left mostly untouched after the massacre in April 1994.
And central Kigali behind

Philip Gourevitch concludes his account of the genocide with this:

I cannot count the times, since I first began visiting Rwanda three years ago, that I’ve been asked, ‘Is there any hope for that place?” If there is hope for Rwanda [it comes] with [this] story. On April 30, 1997 – almost a year ago as I write – Rwandan television showed footage of a man who confessed to having been among a party of genocidaires who had killed seventeen schoolgirls and a sixty-two-year-old Belgian nun at a boarding school in Gisenyi two nights earlier. It was the second such attack on a school in a month; the first time, sixteen students were killed and twenty injured in Kibuye. The prisoner on television explained that the massacre was part of a Hutu Power ‘liberation’ campaign. …During their attack on the school in Gisenyi, as in the earlier attack on the school in Kibuye, the students, teenage girls who had been roused from their sleep, were ordered to separate themselves – Hutus from Tutsis. But the students had refused. At both schools, the girls said they were simply Rwandans, so they were beaten and shot indiscriminately.

Rwandans have no need – no room in their corpse-crowded imaginations – for more martyrs. None of us does. But mightn’t we all take some courage from the example of those brave Hutu girls who could have chosen to live, but chose instead to call themselves Rwandans?


The Internet is 40

There’s a great feature in The Guardian today, marking 40 years of the Internet. In an article by Oliver Burkeman, I particularly enjoyed this anecdote:

29 October 1969 – 40 years ago next week – has a strong claim for being, as Leonard Kleinrock, a professor at the University of California in Los Angeles puts it today, “the day the infant internet uttered its first words”.

At 10.30pm, as Kleinrock’s fellow professors and students crowded around, a computer was connected to the IMP, which made contact with a second IMP, attached to a second computer, several hundred miles away at the Stanford Research Institute, and an undergraduate named Charley Kline tapped out a message. Samuel Morse, sending the first telegraph message 125 years previously, chose the portentous phrase: “What hath God wrought?” But Kline’s task was to log in remotely from LA to the Stanford machine, and there was no opportunity for portentousness: his instructions were to type the command LOGIN…

Kleinrock recalls a tangible sense of excitement that night as Kline sat down at the SDS Sigma 7 computer, connected to the IMP, and at the same time made telephone contact with his opposite number at Stanford. As his colleagues watched, he typed the letter L, to begin the word LOGIN.

“Have you got the L?” he asked, down the phone line. “Got the L,” the voice at Stanford responded.

Kline typed an O. “Have you got the O?”

“Got the O,” Stanford replied.

Kline typed a G, at which point the system crashed, and the connection was lost. The G didn’t make it through, which meant that, quite by accident, the first message ever transmitted across the nascent internet turned out, after all, to be fittingly biblical:


Elsewhere in the article, there’s this remarkable piece of literary history:

In 1946, an astonishingly complete vision of the future appeared in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction. In a story entitled A Logic Named Joe, the author Murray Leinster envisioned a world in which every home was equipped with a tabletop box that he called a “logic”:

“You got a logic in your house. It looks like a vision receiver used to, only it’s got keys instead of dials and you punch the keys for what you wanna get . . . you punch ‘Sally Hancock’s Phone’ an’ the screen blinks an’ sputters an’ you’re hooked up with the logic in her house an’ if somebody answers you got a vision-phone connection. But besides that, if you punch for the weather forecast [or] who was mistress of the White House durin’ Garfield’s administration . . . that comes on the screen too. The relays in the tank do it. The tank is a big buildin’ full of all the facts in creation . . . hooked in with all the other tanks all over the country . . . The only thing it won’t do is tell you exactly what your wife meant when she said, ‘Oh, you think so, do you?’ in that peculiar kinda voice “

History of the Internet


Google: the world’s library?

Here’s a really interesting essay by Robert Darnton from the New York Review of Books which discusses the implications and the historical context of the recent settlement between Google and the authors and publishers who were suing the company for alleged breach of copyright in its project to digitize the book collections of the major academic libraries.

Four years ago, Google began digitizing books from research libraries, providing full-text searching and making books in the public domain available on the Internet at no cost to the viewer. Google also digitized an ever-increasing number of library books that were protected by copyright in order to provide search services that displayed small snippets of the text. In September and October 2005, a group of authors and publishers brought a class action suit against Google, alleging violation of copyright. Last October 28, after lengthy negotiations, the opposing parties announced agreement on a settlement, which is subject to approval by the US District Court for the Southern District of New York

The essay places this development in the context of the Enlightenment’s  ‘Republic of Letters’: ‘a realm with no police, no boundaries, and no inequalities other than those determined by talent. Anyone could join it by exercising the two main attributes of citizenship, writing and reading. Writers formulated ideas, and readers judged them. Thanks to the power of the printed word, the judgments spread in widening circles, and the strongest arguments won.’

Darnton emphasises the staggering reach of Google’s project that will ‘result in the world’s largest library. It would, to be sure, be a digital library, but it could dwarf the Library of Congress and all the national libraries of Europe. Moreover, in pursuing the terms of the settlement with the authors and publishers, Google could also become the world’s largest book business—not a chain of stores but an electronic supply service that could out-Amazon Amazon.’

How should we view this: with Enlightenment enthusiasm or fear of the danger of concentrating power to control access to information?

He concludes that this is ‘a tipping point in the development of what we call the information society. If we get the balance wrong at this moment, private interests may outweigh the public good for the foreseeable future, and the Enlightenment dream may be as elusive as ever.’