Archive for the ‘Google’ tag

The irony of the web – it links so we don't

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Could it be one of the ironies of the web that the more easily it enables us to link documents and data together, the less able we become to make lateral links in our brains?

In the Pew ‘Future of the Internet Survey’, published last week, a number of experts suggested that the net will shift our cognitive capabilities. Particularly in respect to memory. Thanks in part to Google and sites like Wikipedia our brains will, they say, become less good at information stockpiling and more adept at information retrieval – less like sponges soaking up water, more like dogs fetching balls.

“What Google does do” Alex Brun said, ”Is simply to enable us to shift certain tasks to the network ‐ we no longer need to rote‐learn certain seldomly‐used facts (the periodic table, the post code of Ballarat) if they’re only a search away, for example”.

“[C]ertain tasks will be “offloaded” to Google or other Internet services rather than performed in the mind, especially remembering minor details” another respondent, Dean Bubley suggested.

This shift is generally presented in a positive light. People will move away from unthinking learning, the argument goes, and towards a higher level of interpretation and analysis (though Brun worries about our future reliance on Google et al).

‘[W]ith this capacity [rote memory] freed, we may (and probably will) be capable of more advanced integration and evaluation of information’ says Stephen Downes of the Canadian National Research Council.

But is this right? Is rote learning necessarily dumb learning, and therefore devoid much cognitive benefit? Or does learning things by heart enable our brains to make connections they would otherwise miss?

In his introduction to a 2002 collection of poetry, By Heart, Ted Hughes explained why he thought it was so important to commit poems to memory. Partly, Hughes argued, because it made the poems much richer. Once learnt they play over in our minds and different meanings seap out over time.

Even more importantly, once learnt by heart fragments of poems can occur to you spontaneously in other situations. You’ll glance at a scene and find it is perfectly captured, say, by a line from Wordsworth. Or one of Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales will let you to put a difficult situation in perspective.

Translate that to journalism. Imagine you’re reporting on a court case involving a particularly complex property fraud. You could, of course, research similar cases on the net – and almost certainly find many more cases a lot more easily than you could have done in the past. But if you remembered those cases – either through having attended them or learnt about them in the past, then questions would occur to you as the case unfolded and your understanding would have that much more context.

Will we, when we stop learning by heart, find ourselves less capable of making lateral connections?

Written by Martin Moore

February 22nd, 2010 at 5:20 pm

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If you're part of a news story you should be treated differently

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Why don’t news websites reserve a separate space for participants in the story?

It seems very strange that while most news websites now allow people to comment below their stories – they don’t provide any space or special treatment for the people and organisations referred to in the story.

Surely they’re missing a trick? A story feels much more authentic and ‘live’ if, having been published, it re-engages the people involved.

But if the partipant makes a comment it’s almost always mixed in with 30 or so others. This not only makes it seem less interesting, but less credible. You can’t help but think, is this really the person in the article? Would the paper have left their comment languishing down here if it was?

This struck me recently when Dr Fiona Scott, one of two critical sources referenced in the Observer’s front page piece about MMR and autism, left a comment beneath Stephen Pritchard’s column the following week. But since hers was the 19th comment (of 44) it was difficult to find and hard to know whether to take seriously – despite being so integral to the story, and despite the importance of the comment to the overall credibility of the original piece.

Similarly last week, in an internet debate hosted by Newsnight about the MoD’s new guidelines preventing the armed forces from publishing blogs, pictures and videos online, I came across the MoD’s spokesman’s comments nestling amongst 78 others.

Though this might please the democratic purists among us, it reduces the richness of the story and doesn’t help the reader at all.

Neither would giving the participants special treatment require news organisations to make a massive change from current practice. They could just add a separate email / phone number, and then highlight their responses or link to them directly from the article.

If Google, an organisation which extolls its lack of editorial staff, can give participants the chance to respond to news stories (see their announcement last week), then news organisations can certainly do this, and more.

Written by Martin Moore

August 16th, 2007 at 8:16 am

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Wake-up call for newspapers – Google to realise untapped value in right-to-reply content

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I almost spat out my Pret coffee this morning when I read that Google is launching a right-to-reply service on GoogleNews (Richard Wray, Media Guardian).
Google says it plans to let “those people or organizations who were actual participants in the story in question” comment on the story at GoogleNews. Unedited. Even more intriguing is that Google will solicit these responses itself, as well as inviting people to send them in.
Ignoring for a moment the many questions this raises about how Google will do it, existing news organisations should be aware that this equates to a dangerous shot across their bows.
Why? Because Google has realised there is untapped value in the additional content provided by the people involved in news stories and it’s making a bid to capture that value.
Existing news organisations still work on the premise that space is finite and people’s time is limited, so their role is to provide content summarised and edited.
When you remove the space constraints the need for this edited summary doesn’t disappear, but the rationale for not including more content does. Why not have further information from the sources? If a health expert is quoted, why not let the expert explain themselves at greater length? If government officials think they’ve been misrepresented, why not let them justify their position?
As long as you have the report as the basis, additional relevant content adds value and can increase people’s trust.
If news websites are smart they’ll see Google’s new service for what it is – a bid to take over a major new area of content. If the news sites are really smart, they’ll respond fast and do it themselves.

Written by Martin Moore

August 13th, 2007 at 12:18 pm

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Google's private lives

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Imagine if Google started a newspaper. What an astonishing treasure trove of personal information they’d have to get started: personal emails, the details of individual searches, the contact books of gmail users.

Forget about a single newspaper, Google could launch countless newspapers, real life magazines, gossip sites, dating services…

Of course they wouldn’t – not least because of legal constraints – but more because most people would stop using their services pretty fast.

But that isn’t to say it doesn’t have the information to be able to do it. Or that it doesn’t pass bits of that information on to people to allow for targeted advertising. Of course this is a Faustian bargain many of us have chosen to make (this blog for one) – ‘free’ service at point of delivery in exchange for giving up some personal information to enable targeted advertising.

Yet it’s heartening to know that someone is worrying about it. Privacy International, a ‘human rights research and campaign organisation’ has released a report about the privacy practices of major internet companies. None do particularly well, but Google comes bottom. According to the report, the company collects mountains of information about its users, holds onto it for at least 18 months, and discloses very little about where and how that personal information will be used.

Perhaps to pre-empt this report Google clarified its privacy policy back in March (see IHT here), and has since questioned the methodology of the study (again according to Privacy International).

But given the increasing fuzziness of where our private world ends and where our public world begins surely it would make more sense for Google to promote debate and understanding rather than avoid it.

Written by Martin Moore

June 11th, 2007 at 4:18 pm

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