Sunday 16 July 2017


(First published on Kiltr June 2017)
If you’ve read any of my recent pieces, you might realise I’m feeling a little low rent Obi Wan Kenobi here, a Geordie Kenobi, if you will. These may not be the words you’ve been looking for. My apologies, things change. They are words though, perhaps not what you want, with a slim possibility of being what you need.
What is there over the parapet? What lurks beyond the silo someone, somewhere keeps trying to corral your life decisions into? How do you map a path, an escape route, away from this seemingly unavoidable, prescribed eternity of dichotomised binary decisions, reforming your reality around you in quantum algorithmic ripples? It doesn’t seem real right? It has all the hallmarks of the bizarre, constructed, perceptual chicanery we know it to be. Yet still it informs, affects, controls, shepherds our lives.
We’ve had the perfect metaphor for those realities, those silos of data and information representing the totality of a lived experience, in Scotland, for hundreds of years. Scholars, archaeologists, anthropologists still debate and fail to reach conclusive agreement on the purpose of brochs.
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Original interpretations by 19th Century antiquarians, favoured the notion they were defensive structures, places of refuge for community and livestock, sometimes regarded as the work of native Picts or migrant Danes. From the 1930’s to 1960’s, archaeologists regarded them as castles where local landowners held dominion over a subject population.
This latter theory fell from favour among academics of the 1980’s due to a lack of supporting archaeological evidence. It was just another theory, unproven.
New ideas emerged, suggesting defensibility was never a major concern in the siting of a broch, arguing they may have been the stately homes of their time. Yet again though, the burden of proof, of evidence, found archaeological objects of prestige, visible demonstrations of superiority, failed to materialise. The sheer numbers of brochs, sometimes in places with a distinct lack of good land or resources, made this theory problematic too.
The close grouping and profusion of brochs in some areas led to the only general loose conclusion being that they did in fact have a primarily defensive and occasionally offensive purpose. Some were sited beside precipitous cliffs, protected by natural or artificial ramparts. Often they are at key strategic points. Some archaeologists insist brochs should be considered individually, doubting there was ever a single common purpose for which they were constructed.

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Imagine then, a vast perceived threat, of indeterminate force or duration, wherein a network of communities retreat into the silo, the bubble, the closed reality of the broch. A seemingly necessary martial presence enforces discipline and attempts to offer an extended psychological security to all within the enclosed walls. Supplies are rationed as others offer succour to the more vulnerable in the community. Others yet become restless, agitating to leave, insisting the threat has either dispersed or was imagined, or at least exaggerated, in the first place.
Tensions mount higher the longer the situation endures. Both seemingly unlikely and obvious divisions, as well as bonds, are formed between inhabitants.
The same process happens in the siloed, micro-targetted realities we live in now. Our brochs are constructed from barely perceived subtleties of bias, perceptual manipulation and votive offerings to the new gods of data. They corral our behaviours just the same. The injustices perpetrated by the (imagined, constructed or real) threat beyond the seemingly protective walls enabling, condoning, challenging for justification of almost all actions perpetrated within them. Maintaining conflicting versions of truth, cognitive dissonance becomes commonplace, part of the fabric of this new reality itself.
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But somewhere, within each silo, there are those whose moral compass, whose instinct toward humanity, whose perceptual sense of what is actually occurring obstinately refuses to be swayed by any nascent mob mentality. They understand the shared sense of network/community all now have invested in this corralled reality, but they share more with the knitted eyebrows, the question ready to be spoken by another across the space they inhabit, than with the enforced spatio-temporal community at large facing a recurring, encoded problem, reaction, solution.
They comprise, those with the questioning looks exchanged, an inclusive enduring mindset, not a divisive demographic. They are of every generation and none. They are vectors who can spread ideas quicker than any single generation. They may share some values of communities they find themselves corralled into but they are not defined by them. Their behaviours, choices, cannot be predicted by algorithms or AI because they are innately defined by their humanity. They hold the keys to unlocking the seeming inevitability of siloed, adversarial, tribal realites.
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Genuine tolerance feels unattainable when there are hard lines drawn between the decades, between the generations. Should other generations watch on redundant or react petulant, as they have done in alternating patterns, as the media’s gaze remains unduly focused on the Millenial timeline, with lights dimming for everyone else? When attitudes and habits reported widely to be millenial specific may actually be quite widespread among the generations?
Relevance belongs to every age not only during a generation’s ascension to it. But most paradigmatic relevance, new thinking and behaviours, emerge when there are no artificial divisions between generations at all, when relevance is shared and inclusive. When it doesn’t seem odd for a septuagenarian to have a best friend half the age of her daughter, simply because they share ideas, see the world in similar ways.
Gina Pell spent a year ruminating on an appropriate sobriquet to describe people based on psychographics not demographics. She was searching for a term which allowed for the choice of reality, based on shared values, compassion and humanity. A term which allowed a break out from silos, from brochs, from any faux constructs behind age, class or other manipulable demographic systems of classification.
In order to supplant constricting labels with one which better reflects civic reality, on or offline, Gina wanted a more human version of big data’s ‘recommendation engines’, the algorithms which target people based on behavioural data over outmoded generational stereotypes. Except it would define behaviour, not data representing it.
As Gina eventually put it, ‘being a millennial doesn’t have to mean living in your parent’s basement, growing an artisanal beard and drinking craft beer. Midlife doesn’t have to be a crisis. And you don’t have to be a number anymore. You’re relevant.’
You live in the present. You know what’s going on in the world. You stay abreast of current technology. You have friends of all generations. You get involved. You stay curious. You are passionate, compassionate, creative, global and local minded. You are not defined by someone else’s version of reality. You are not data. Your behaviour cannot be accurately predicted by an algorithm. You are part of an improbable, dispersed network. It has an innate power.
Use the keys. Step outside of the silo, beyond the broch. See them, the other nodes? Blooming as ever they were? Those are your peers. You are Perennial.
In the words of Keith Olbermann, resist. Peace.
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EternalBlue, Panjandrum2 and GCHQ

(First published on Kiltr May 2017)
Enduring interests abide in me with regard to how information, data, is collected and value extracted from it. This, as well as in the codes, languages, used to express it through. It isn’t passing curiosity. In one way or another, those interests have been the basis for over twenty years of academic research.
Over time I have come to see the relationship between information and the code it is expressed through, the semiotic relationship, as underlying and determining societal, economic and political structures for centuries, entrenching increasingly inherent bias. The nature of how this occurs is becoming far more easily and widely understood as it becomes more literal. This has made it necessary for those who would seek to attain or retain power and wealth to obfuscate the nature of their machinations and render as many societal structures and relationships complicit in the process as possible, smoke and mirrors in their game of thrones. Before, knowledge may indeed have been enough to imply power, but now data drives global economies and power, soft, hard or indeterminate is a far more nebulous concept.
Given pause for such insidious considerations while I cogitated over whether to first publish a short addendum piece to ‘The Great Panjandrum’, drawing out a few thoughts I had omitted from it in the editing process but nevertheless felt ultimately pertinent, or to go with another piece I’d written a few weeks ago and was yet to publish, unsure of whether it may place me in the midst of a debate which can be fairly febrile, or of the relative dangers that may entail, I genuinely couldn't decide.
This latter is written in what currently passes for standard orthographic Scots, takes issue with one of its extant culture bearers and at least one other, and has notes on the whys, wherefores and my thoughts on what should be a far more involved and nuanced Scots language debate than the excuse we currently have as one. Its themes as much as any intended addenda to ‘The Great Panjandrum’ related to it just as much, my quandarry was in whether if or when I would feel able to take it in the neck from both sides of what stands for that debate.
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In the end, along came a virus exploiting a bug codenamed EternalBlue, affecting my life and those for whom I and my company are advocates, in very stark, real and alarming ways. Data encryption swiftly became a matter of life and death and related to my addenda in ways I had to prioritise. So ‘The Great Panjandrum 2.0’ grew some arms and legs and I could easily wait to get pelters about my thoughts on the Scots language.
Just in case you didn’t hear, the bug named EternalBlue, general awareness of which emerged a few weeks ago when shady hacker crew Shadow Brokers dumped a load of cyber tools, believed to belong to and to have been hoarded and exploited by the NSA, was used as a method for rapidly spreading a ransomware variant now called WannaCry around the world from Friday. Initial reports of its deployment came from within the NHS.
I first became aware of the threat while managing office appointments for my partner’s counselling business, which receives some referrals through the NHS. We were sent a warning email early Friday afternoon. My company also provides email servers for the counselling business, as well as for quite a few other small charity and non-profit organisations.
We became not only alarmed at the situation but, in knowing a little about how these types of attacks are propagated, at the NHS’ naïveté in sending out email warnings from compromised servers. I became more concerned still for the clients of the non-profit I run, which my company is the revenue raising arm for, supporting people with neurological disabilities. I had a personal neurologist's appointment due next week myself so decided to check on the situation directly.
On calling the department, I was told by reception they had no access to any patient records due to ‘the system being down’. I explained that given this was one of the main centres for neurological research in Scotland and a main diagnosis centre, and since I was fully informed and aware of the situation, I wondered if it would be possible to give me more than bland non-reassurances, maybe even let me know what was being demanded in the ransom for my records alongside everyone else in the department’s. The receptionist floundered. I wasn’t sure if she wasn’t able to answer or wasn’t allowed to.
WannaCry propagates itself, worm-like, by encrypting any files it captures. Then ransoms are demanded to release the files. For individual users affected this manifests itself as victims being asked to pay up to $300 to remove the virus, otherwise files remain locked and systems inaccessible.
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The ransomware has hit the NHS hard, exposing vulnerabilities in a system badly in need of greater investment, poorly built and maintained, with multiple sources reporting closures of entire wards, patients turned away from appointment and admissions as well as Accident & Emergency departments. A central London NHS Trust advised patients to look for assistance elsewhere, pointing out ambulances may not be available. Another NHS England organisation had to turn away outpatients and restrict life saving radiology services on its cancer ward. Another hospital, which had closed its A&E department, would only admit patients in ‘life threatening conditions’.
As of Friday evening, NHS England reported 16 individual organisations within its make up had been hit to the point of virtual shut down by WannaCry. Half of NHS Scotland Trusts had also been hit. There are fears it could spread much further when staff reached their desks on Monday morning.
The outbreak has hit systems in at least eleven other nations. A security researcher with AVG said he’d recorded 36,000 variants as of Friday. Security firm Kaspersky later said it had recorded as many as 45,000 variants in 74 countries, noting Russia had been the hardest hit with Spain under virulent attack too. MalwareTech produced a map of the spread.
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The dispersal of malware came through email, in which fake invoices, job offers and other lures were sent. Within the emails is a zip file which if clicked activates the infection. The worm like nature of the virus targets a Windows operating system vulnerability in a network file sharing protocol.
After the initial Shadow Brokers’ dump and exposed online discussion of how to exploit vulnerabilities it highlighted, a patch was issued for Windows, in March, to prevent just this exact occurrence. WannaCry’s rapid dissemination through essential health, government and energy/utility systems shows how widely spread wilful ignorance of that threat was.
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This is not a random or isolated event. This is the accumulation of issues over many years. One of the most significant, though far from the only one, is how government understands the term ‘cyber warfare’.
Despite spread and awareness of the term, governments, Presidents, Prime Ministers, generals and journalists treat the term as an extension of the jingoism surrounding their approaches to warfare in general. This has led to an at best imbalanced understanding of what it actually means. This has, in turn, led directly to exposure to attacks like that propagated by WannaCry.
Cyber warfare is entirely different to ‘traditional’ warfare and demands an equivalently different response. This does not appear to be a mindset many governments are predisposed to.
In ‘standard’ warfare, it is possible to build up your own defences without improving those of any opposing forces. You can develop new offensive weaponry which your ‘opponent’ does not have. Aiming for this asymmetry has been fundamental to how wars have been won.
In cyber warfare, in contrast, everyone uses the same basic software infrastructure and weaponises the same vulnerabilities in global technological or network infrastructures. Building up your own defences contributes to building up everyone’s defences. It is only possible to develop new ‘weapons’ if everyone can develop them, can exploit the same vulnerabilities.
Governments and politicians with a reflexive trust of their own intelligence agencies develop massive issues in understanding these basic principles. It is in the interests of the agencies to obfuscate and promote their own favoured positions. That’s why agencies like the NSA and GCHQ like to emphasise how much they are engaged in defence.
In a bizarre coincidence, at exactly the same time as WannaCry was attacking the NHS on Friday, GCHQ tweeted its defence credentials in limerick form (it was National Limerick Day apparently, who knew! Well apart from the bods at GCHQ, who should have known other things entirely!):
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These organisations do not form the first, last or any line of defence in cyber wafare. Instead they keep us vulnerable to attack because their organisational structures create powerful incentives to do so. The ‘Snooper’s Charter’, now law of course, means vast amounts of citizen based data is hoarded on their servers too, a valuable and desirable resource, whether for data horse trading or for ‘cyber criminals’ with will and intent.
The basic psychology of agencies like GCHQ and the NSA makes it nigh impossible for them to engage in genuine cyber defence. These agancies are rooted in the psychologies of the spy network, of the cold war. Engaging in cyber defence as a matter of due diligence would require reporting vulnerabilities as soon as they were found. But that would appear, to their psychology, to preclude any advantage, any means of exploitation they may have over other networks. The nature of information flow, shadow data, they rely upon would soon dry up and budgets along with it as they became politically vulnerable.
And yet, while the vulnerabilities of NHS data management put lives directly at risk, is still doing so, its a fairly safe bet, GCHQ, or a government spokesperson on their behalf, will not be held liable, during a General Election on Theresa ‘strong and stable’ May’s watch, for limericking while the NHS burns! No doubt they will instead be given extra powers of offense, ostensibly to snuff out the threat of those who so exposed their frailties, for failing so badly at defence.
This may not have been an attack aimed or targetted solely at the NHS, but it exposed its vulnerabilities, the inherent weakness in its data security provision and management.
Which brings me to what were to have been far simpler, more idealistic addenda to ‘The Great Panjandrum’ based thoughts. There is a word being as much used in data management circles as it is in those of futurists and culture design enthusiasts. It is a word with cultural resonance for us in Scotland and perhaps it is one which we can play a part in reclaiming. Not for ourselves in any kind of contrition with exceptionalism, but as a drawing of a line, a staking of a claim to a collective future by owning the etymologies of our past. The word is steward.
GCHQ are not good or even appropriate stewards of our data. A hard-right Conservative government in Westminster is proving, at least in democratically expressed international, national and regional terms, wherever your sympathies lie in any tribalistic political divides, to be an increasingly inappropriate steward of Scotland’s future.
Scotland’s history, and in some regards as much that of the Union too, it’s past, is inextricably linked to the lineage of Stuart descent. The surname is etymologically derived from an occupational name for a steward. In pre-diphthong shift Old English, the word was compounded from ‘stig’ or ‘household’ and ‘weard’ or ‘guardian’, to be rendered ‘stigweard’. It came to mean the overseer of a ‘noble’ household, with particular associations to safeguarding the treasury.
Where records exist, the surname, devoid of occupational association, is first found in Scotland from the 13th century. It evolved differing connotations in a Scottish cultural context as the feudal and burgh systems of managing capital evolved across Europe.
Few royal European houses, in an age still in thrall to an absolute power embodied in the ‘divine’ right of monarchy (albeit increasingly tempered through a dissemination of some wealth and power among barons, knights, lairds and clergy) would elevate any descendant in a line of mere stewardship to ‘absolute’ power. A pervasive, however ultimately illusory, cultural notion persisted, embodying the ascendant royal lineage with ‘stewardship’ of Scotland on behalf of its peoples. It does not appear to have been a notion which readily translated through the politicised processes of Union.
The notion of stewardship persists though. As it is around the world, Scotland is struggling to balance the tensions, the push and pull of a heavily politicised, data driven economy against the imminent plethora of genuine global existential crises. From where will we derive the wise managers of cultural evolution before it’s too late, before the seemingly inevitable overshoot and collapse of current general, global mismanagement?
Perhaps you’ll think it a trite and overly simplistic observation, but it comes from a place of deep frustration and ultimate need to hope. It’s a relatively safe statistical bet we already know everything we need to, to solve our current political, societal and planetary crises. As we move towards an increasingly perilous future no one can surely want. Seemingly blind to our capacity for collective re-imagining of potential and possible futures, we appear to resign ourselves to participation in someone else’s poor design, to entrust stewardship of our future to the least able to think collectively. To those unable to imagine a future beyond an illusory past.
For the last half century, technically at least since the Enlightenment, government agencies globally have invested relative billions in funding social sciences. And yet still we grapple with intensifying social, economic and political issues on local, national, international and global scales.
A major reason the issues persist is not because academia has unearthed no viable solutions but rather is in a failure to ensure vital bridge building between the arenas of academic research and social change practice. It should be shameful to us as a society how many life’s works, how many academic findings are never translated into social improvement or the positive change they foreshadow.
And so we find ourselves, as individuals and as a species, disoriented human beings living in an increasing bountiful but paradoxically barren 21st Century; where we were promised utopian jetpacks we face the dystopia of compounding existential threat. Not merely to our own existence or to that of the species but to the totality of human lived experience, gathered knowledge and accrued wisdom, held in a state of jeopardy by the capricious demands of a greedy few. A mass extinction event is unfolding, driven primarily by human activity which increasingly benefits only them, until it benefits no one. There would be no lessons learned from the end of the species.
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Urging it on, squeezing every last drop of capital from every possible resource, hidden in plain sight, just follow the money as Deep Throat never said, this cabal of billionaire financiers have built a machine, the most sophisticated system of misinformation, marketing, spin and outright propaganda the world has ever seen. And they have done their damndest to make us all complicit in their machinations, to almost embed us in its sub routines, as they have gone about it.
They corrode and undermine our electoral systems, defunding or supporting government as they see fit, directing taxpayer funded research toward the entrenching of their positions. Then wheel out willing puppets to tell us we’ve had enough of experts who we never get to hear.
It is a massive global system designed to extract and hoard wealth, where wealth has come to equal power. It has become so successful at propagating itself just 62 people now personally hold the same aggregate wealth as 3,700,000,000. Those are vastly overstacked odds which should fill every one of us in the latter number with an even greater righteous anger for every zero counted. But the rigged nature of the game translates it into an even deeper sense of futility and frustration.
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Something which won’t be mentioned much in our impromptu General Election campaign is that the choice is not between political parties but between attitudes towards culture design, between ideologically conscious divides, between attitudes in how we respond to impending future collective necessity. As a vast infrastructure for spreading, sowing division, hatred and lies, for pitting one political tribe against one another, for turning data back on itself, whilst the coffers are stripped bare, shifts its focus again to the UK, in Scotland, can we find the means to move beyond it? Can we find our route to become part of something more, to play a part in becoming wise stewards of planetary and cultural evolution?
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As our planet and species behaviour changes in unprecedented ways, can we learn from and apply the sciences of cultural evolution to navigate the cascade of crises already besetting a world deeply and profoundly altered by human actions?
The issues run deeper than any political debate. Discernment of priorities is more than deciding what is fake and what is real news. They are symptoms, skirmishes in the midst of a full on, non-linear information and data war, where it will no longer be clear who the combatants or what the motivations even are.
As yet no one has claimed responsibility for WannaCry. Targetting the NHS seemed to make the impact on individual lives, the possibility of deaths, to find responsibility, to point fingers of blame, far more likely. Was it intent or obfuscation, a strike or exposure of failing political and technological systems?
Against backdrops like these there are no simple binary choices, until there are. They are not just between a hard right Brexit cliff edge and another IndyRef. But each choice delineates pathways of culture design.
One will lead to the inevitability of overshoot and collapse, with power increasingly transferred from the many to fewer, by institutions of greed and wealth hoarding at the blackened, selfish heart of the current failing ideologised, economic system.
The other has at least the potential to recognise humans as part of nature and to see any willing distinction, any separation of global and local crises as a cultural sickness. It has the potential to choose to take a leading role in becoming part of a global network of nations as culture design laboratories, recognising the challenges we face as a species and joining in addressing them through open collaboration and participation in the design of our collective futures.
It is just the potential it has for it mind. It would take active agency and engagement with what’s actually at stake. It would take deciding which MPs, which of us, can genuinely become what Joe Brewer calls ‘seed islands of transformation’. It would take acknowledgement that humanity already has the knowledge to solve every chronic issue it and our societies face. To not have done so is either poor management or wilful political prestidigitation. It would take acknowledging systems of endemic power and entrenchment. Most of all it would require a collective will to uproot them wherever they have grown wild.
Post ImageIn the immediate sense, in a world driven by data, it would take an acknowledgement it is not a resource to be treated lightly. Certainly not by a government agency claiming to be the first line of defence in cyber warfare, falling desperately short, writing limericks about its capabilities whilst they are woefully exposed, literally threatening the lives of citizens it claims to defend. If mismanagement of data can lead to the possibility of death, on any scale, you are certainly not fit to manage it.
As Joe Brewer says, we can only reach a future we all strive for together. If stewardship of the future leads to there being none, those who would have you appoint them under those circumstances, with those plans for culture design, have wholly misunderstood the concept; perhaps it’s a cultural thing.
Oh, and don't click on any unsolicited zip files in emails, OK?

The Great Panjandrum

(First published on Kiltr Apr 2017)
It barely registers as surprise, when so much of it is literally communicated in code, to observe data appearing to follow a similar trajectory to the English language. Communication is a coded,obscured process, with the intent behind data, how it is generated and how it is used, words or language often layered and oblique. As far as involvement in the process goes, the English language is a bastardised panjandrum.
Notoriously difficult to learn for speakers of more organised, structured means of communication, English is often said to be typified by its exceptions rather than its rules. And yet, thanks to the follies of empire, colonisation and now the ubiquity of internet connection, English still runs rampant, fudging, morphing, borrowing, bastardising all in its path, the parallel image of the cultures which spawned it.
From the diphthong shift to the tourist shouting louder in a language, as much a symbol of cultural overreach, and often resented just as much, as any pink on a map of the world, English is the mother of obscured, failing communication as much as Westminster is the mother of all failing parliaments in our faltering democracies. Even the term used in it to describe its main means of mass communication derives from a borrowing.
Media is the Latinate plural for medium. Traditionally it is therefore thought, the word should be treated as a pluralised noun in all its senses and should be used with a plural rather than a singular verb, eg ‘the media have not reported on this’ rather than the far more common ‘the media has not reported on this’.  In this sense, the word media behaves in the same way as other collective nouns, like staff or clergy, meaning it has become acceptable for it to take either a singular or plural verb. 
The word has also been increasingly used in a new pluralised form of ‘medias’, as if it had a conventional singular form, particularly when referring to different forms of new media, eg ‘great efforts were made to show this in the medias of many countries’. It is small wonder, when even communicating about communication appears to be made up ‘on the hoof’, the English language can seem confusing, its rules and exceptions so arbitrary, to non-speakers.
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I raise these points, with regard to such fickle and oblique means of communication, because, as ever it was, they appear to underlie a tendency to bend toward service in abuses of power. Where once those who would employ its devices in attempts to speak truth to power and found themselves, their words, corrupted by the increments of a society, a culture driven increasingly by the malevolent discernments of capital, now discerning the lies, the ‘fake news’ amidst the glut of words, of data, served up minute by minute, is the challenge to the language processing aspects of our neurologies.
As of March 2017, according to, 52.1% of the top 10 million websites using various content languages were written in English. The second most commonly used language was Russian at just 6.5%. Spanish language based sites ranked fifth at 5.1%. Chinese language based websites were ranked only the ninth most populous on the internet.
In terms of internet users, according to the Miniwatts Marketing Group, as of June 2016, by first or predominant language use, English did rank first but at only 26.3% of all users, with almost double the amount of sites required to cater for their numbers. Chinese ranked second at 20.8%, Spanish third at 7.7% and Russian eighth, with 2.95% of all users.
It seems even in virtual spoace, English speakers are prone to overreach and colonisation of more space than appropriate for their numbers, tending towards a majoritarianism rather than any kind of democratic or proportional digital representation. The percentages may seem vastly smaller but by a matter of degrees, those internet media, bot and sock puppet manipulators in chief, those pesky Russians, are over-represented by a measure of around 2:1 in a similar fashion to English speakers.
All of which brings me to my primary concern in taking fingers to keyboard; remember the glorious promise of the world wide web being something we all made together, not something, an Internet of Things, we just consume?
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It is difficult to believe barely twenty five years have transpired since the wonders of the web geared themselves up into existence. Amidst the bright eyed tumult of those heady dawning days, cyber utopians first cast dubious looks askance at the oft vaunted and much celebrated ‘monoculture’, the apparent cultural unity, of what had gone before and decided to offer up something else instead.
For the newly emergent acolytes of a nascent cyber utopia, in the vanguard of what they saw as an ultimately democratising force, monoculture was the hegemon to be opposed and dismantled by the rise and rise of the new medium. Hell, code may even supersede the tyranny of language.
No more would popular taste be dictated by three or four television channels, a handful of radio stations and a restricted number of proprietorially or editorially controlled newspapers. The internet would offer a wild and unfettered range of options, ushering in an eclectic digital paradise. Every aspect of niche culture would have an audience and the very notion of a mainstream, an almost obligatory monoculture, which everyone was expected to like and engage with, had been eclipsed, rendered defunct and meaningless.
But if we skip forward past that wide eyed optimism, yes, the internet has indeed brought greater availability in diversity of cultural choice and made it slightly more possible and acceptable to survive culturally only on the most niche of tastes, but the overwhelming centre of cultural gravity still sits preponderantly in the very market determined, middle of the mainstream. There may be wider access to a more varied cultural output but general media and concomitant social media coverage, how most people shape their cultural tastes and what matters for narrative/market dominance, is actually increasingly controlled and restricted.
Lives, culture, tastes are curated and presented as best versions of themselves, the better to be micro-targetted and marshalled into siloed versions of reality. Data derived from them is the new oil, driving economies dominated by just a few monopolising corporations. And the word, the English language, any language, aspiring to the best obtainable version of the truth becomes further distanced from its own use and our persistent need, as social animals, to communicate. It is no longer its own function, it produces and drives data.
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We should remember though, whilst an entire generation have grown up in a not so brave new world, pervaded by the new media of internet ubiquity, digital journalism, which should aspire to be the best obtainable digital version of the truth if it is to retain any semblance of the craft which it seeks to be the next evolution of, is barely a toddler compared to its analogue predecessor. Much like the steep learning curve of a developing infant, digital journalism has already transitioned through readily definable growth phases and developments. We can loosely define the most significant of these as the portal years, the search years and the social years.
Each of these ‘eras’ developed the presentation of narrative, of storytelling and attempted to develop attendant, life sustaining revenue streams. And now, as a fourth era struggles to emerge, some of the original boundless promise of the internet may just be restored, if it can be understood and embraced as the genuinely freeing notion it can become. This may initially seem counterintuitive to everything you think you have come to learn about the internet because in some ways it means hiding information, distributing data from, behind a paywall.
In order to fully understand how this is already beginning to take shape, it is necessary to understand a little of interpretations and applications of Clayton Christensen’s economic disruption theory first:

Following these models, traditional news organisations initially used technology to create sustaining innovations which made their means of production and consumption more efficient. New entrants, however, used technology to create disruptive innovations which built new markets. New internet based news outlets, like Huffington Post or Buzzfeed, built their models for search engine optimisation in the case of the former, or optimised for social media, as in the case of the latter.
Another way of looking at the disruption curve is as a matter of integration vs. modularity. Companies move up the curve in pursuit of profit. In its early stages, at the lower reaches of the curve, a company may just be building a new product with new technology and needs to own the product value chain in order to maintain quality control in getting the product to the consumer. For traditional publishers this meant controlling the newsgathering, distribution and selling of their content. This is an integrated value chain model.
At some point companies will exceed what the consumer actually needs from a product. When this happens the company has overreached or overshot the needs of the consumer. Improved technology means it is more cost effective for a company in this position to outsource aspects of its value chain, becoming a modular model.
A modular value chain exposes a company to fragmentation, making it vulnerable to disruptive competitors, who can target individual, modular or fragmented aspects of the business. When the internet arrived, burgeoning with cultural and commercial promise, it became a threat to traditional publishers, who saw it only as a sustaining innovation. But it was full of opportunity for those who saw it as a disruptive innovation. Against this backdrop, amongst a myriad of other blinking new born cyber babies, digital journalism was born into the portal era.
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The period roughly from 1990-1997 was when the course of disruptive digital journalism, as with everything internet related, was determined by portals. These were integrated value chains where the bandwidth, software, servers and news were controlled by the same actors. 
These first new entrants were companies like MSN and AOL with revenues tied directly to display advertising. If you wanted to advertise, you needed to buy space on a portal. These digital gateways closely resembled their print correlatives by being end to end publishing businesses who relied heavily on advertising for revenue.
The portal era evolved into the search era, which extended dominance roughly from 1997-2006. These were years of discovery and modularity with newly dominant search engines generating traffic to newly evolving journalistic sites optimised for search engines.
These were sustaining innovations in digital journalism which drove traffic and ad revenue. In the early years scale was rewarded but by the end of the era new advertising technologies exerted downward pressure on value at scale. Publishers came to recognise they couldn’t achieve enough scale and value at reasonable cost to replace traditional revenue through digital advertising alone.
Digital platforms had begun to overshoot the needs of consumers, ushering in a new market fragmentation. This became an era of unpaid writers, headline optimisation, the beginning of click baiting, pop up advertising, massive multi page galleries, article pagination and unmoderated forums and comment sections. Consumers were no longer being served and there was little approximation of any best obtainable version of the truth amidst the demands from advertising.
In stepped the willing disruptors in the third era of digital journalism, social media, determining the social years, which stretched roughly from 2006 to 2015 in their dominance. During this time the market fragmented even further. Thanks to social networks, primarily Facebook, journalism, like everything else was optimised for social and/or viral ‘buzz’. Click-bait became so ubiquitous it entered common parlance.
Digital journalism, much like many aspects of digitised cultural output, had now failed to meet the needs of consumers both in terms of content and in terms of user experience. At its peak, stories of the social era were optimised for clickability and impressions, not readability or loyalty.
As digital journalism, tracking wider changes in web culture, moved from one era to the next, sites borne of them accumulated legacy infrastructure and resources in advertising technology which made it more difficult to respond to disruption from the next new phase. Whole industries grew up around, and became invested in, their predominant concerns and much like the sites clung to relevance fast becoming outmoded. Of what use will SEO or Social Media Marketing be in a digital world made infinitely more sinister, driven by data-mining and micro-targetting for cynical and corporatist ends, where the vast bulk of data flow is controlled by just five or six companies?
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These titans of data, Alphabet (Google’s parent), Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft are the most valuable listed companies in the world. They collectively notched up over $25 billion in net profit from just the first quarter of this year. Amazon captures half of all dollars spent online in the US. Google and Facebook were responsible for almost all revenue growth in digital advertising in the US last year.
A new commodity gives rise to a lucrative, fast growing industry and unchecked will attempt to entrench its nascent power. A century ago it happened with oil and the world’s economies have been held ransom by it ever since. Its happening now with data.
These companies have pulled off a classic double bluff. In a digital world, now driven by consumption, their success appears to have been to the benefit of consumers. Google’s search engine seems indispensable, few companies deliver virtually anything in a day like Amazon and Facebook’s newsfeed is still the world’s predominant source of social media interaction. Many of these services seem to be free but users pay by handing over yet more data. It’s now written into the terms and conditions. New approaches are required for the data economy to break the dominance of the big five if more new entrants are to enter the arena.
The public at large have become complicit in the shift to the data economy. The use of mobile devices has made data both more abundant and more valuable. Virtually everything we do now creates a digital trace, raw material for digital distilleries, and machine learning extracts more value from it.
Abundance of data changes the nature of competition. The big data firms surveillance spans the entire economy, Google sees what you search for, Facebook sees what you share, Amazon sees what you buy and where, and all of them track where you are; they have a God’s eye view and make it increasingly unlikely some plucky young disruptive company can come along and dislodge them. They can see when a new product or company gains traction and simply copy it or buy it up.
So where now for any digital start-up, for digital journalism platforms, after twenty years of modularity and accelerated technological progress, where everyone with a blog can generate revenue, becomes a digital publisher and digital journalism, which should be driven by accurate data and information sources, has over-reached, overshot the needs of its consumers?
Reading the same language across disproportionately more than half of the internet, consumers of English language internet based media, like consumers of all media, are now living through an absolute surplus of news and information optimised for advertising and other nefarious aims, including of course ‘fake news’, which has eroded trust and credibility. Consumers of digital journalism are on a general flight towards quality and community. Digital journalism has become commoditised through an increasing necessity. This is creating new market opportunities at the bottom end of a new disruption curve which is not yet good enough, is finding its feet, establishing new norms.
Digital journalism has moved from a modular phase of disruption to a new phase of integration which relies heavily on owning the relationship with your readers through data. It is becoming the inverse of what brought it into being; a disruptive new market, driven by data, drawing on the emergence and applications of machine learning, predictive analytics and a targeted understanding of user behaviour. It is fast catching up with other avenues of digital disruption and finding its own new means of sustainability.
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Where some may still be convinced internet services, social media feeds should and do remain free they do so in wilful ignorance of the cost in data mined, behaviours micro-targetted into the silo-ed realities which allowed manipulation of the Brexit and Trump election results. The new era of genuine digital journalism recognises the full cost of that data horse trading, including in diminished trust and credulity. If, as a consumer of digital journalism, you want reliable, well sourced data to flow in the other direction, the simplest, safest model to follow, and the one gaining traction on the flight towards community and quality, is a subscription and/or licensing model.
In attempting to define this new paradigm, David Skok has drawn on the term for organisations relying on subscription revenues to build and improve software services. He argues that owning the platform has become far less important than owning the story and defines a clear competitive advantage for those who own the relationship between the story and the reader, over those who own the means of production and/or platforms of newsgathering and information. Just as subscription revenues built Software as Service, digital journalism is now in the early stages of a phase directly reliant on consumers and for the first time in over a hundred years, journalism, news need not be funded or led by advertising. The forthcoming years of digital journalism will be defined as the era of Stories as Service.
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Where readers pay for their digital journalism and publishers can then afford to generate data, information, stories by actually paying journalists to write, creating a double edged data revenue stream, a listening exercise also develops. Publishers become wholly accountable to readers, have to listen to what they actually want. The focus shifts onto accountability metrics like loyalty and retention and further away from an advertising, proprietorial or editorial led slant.
Consumers always subscribed to journalistic content, even if market necessity subsidised it through advertising, through buying newspapers and magazines, then through cable and satellite TV. Increasingly now though, consumers are willing to pay for digital content; Netflix has 93 million subscribers, Spotify 40 million, Apple Music 20 million and Hulu 12 million. Journalistic sites like Medium are phasing in subscription. Even traditional publishers are increasingly replacing their digital advertising revenues with digital subscription revenues.
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Most of the publications seeing success from this emergent model rely on quality over quantity journalism. There appears to be a built in tendency towards a niche media focus, which is no bad thing, may just restore some of the original impetus of the internet’s democratising intent. Pivotting to the new era means shedding the notion of using vast advertising ambitions, previously thought as prerequisite to achieving profitability, and instead shifting to subscription ambitions, which require focus on content, quality, engagement, trust and loyalty.
Positive feedback loops will develop with readers, not advertisers or sponsors. For the first time ever it will genuinely only be readers and writers who determine the fate of journalism. As the era evolves publications will need to adapt, to listen and respond in near real time to the vagaries of new and shifting markets. The positive flipside will be that when stories are assigned not for clicks but for loyalty and retention, journalism and its new and developing communities will continue to improve, will be better for it.
Scotland’s responses to the shifts through the eras of digital journalism have quickened as we move into this latest phase. Undoubtedly the debate and political engagement of the Indyref years gave some impetus to flagging traditional publishers on one hand and where they displayed inherent bias and gaps in media coverage grew, a nascent new media landscape emerged on the other. So as the latest phase dawns and publications globally attempt to transition, as purveyors of digital media are you prepared? As a Scottish consumer of digital journalism, as a user of the internet, are you ready?
All that data, all of the information, the feedback loops you thought came for free inside your siloed bubble, never did. Every interaction came at a cost and your data was mined, your reality hacked, shifted, re-aligned around you. The last bastion of genuine freedoms, virtual space, was colonised too, but you can take back control.
You won’t do it by changing a few settings or being more careful about what news makes it onto your newsfeeds, changes will continue to happen all around you, data power will continue to propagate itself. But all is not lost.
The following table shows a Pew Research Centre survey’s results from 2016 on news and information consumption, showing clear distinctions across age groups and a general trend away from newspapers, particularly among younger groups, so it will continue further:
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So, as things stand, just to right the media imbalances in Scotland, you maybe buy a National four or five times a week and a Sunday Herald. Or a digital subscription if you’ve realised we should be transitioning to paperless communities as much as we should be to paperless offices. That’s £5.30 a week or so. Maybe you buy your local newspaper once a week, so add on another £1, multiply by 52 weeks and you get to around £327.60 a year. Then you maybe contribute to crowdfunders for your favourite new media blogs, or even subscribe/just contribute regularly, once or twice a year. Call it a conservative estimate of another £42.40, just to make the figures a bit easier to work with, making it £372 a year. That’s around £31 you already spend on subscribing to journalism, and some of it still comes loaded with advertising.
Imagine instead if the data, the stories were licensed to each publication. They could be distributed to other news sources, to newsfeed apps for license fees and subscriptions. Maybe you don’t like every writer in the National. Newsfeed apps could filter based on writer, so you could only get Kevin McKenna’s column or Cat Boyd’s. The same could apply to other news sources, magazines, niche interests. It is possible to imagine a situation where your news is genuinely personalised, not targeted through advertising, curated and chosen by you for you. And not a whiff of advertising anything else to you as you consume. Would you pay, say £15-20 a month for that service?
If local news services could be delivered through licensed distribution of data and information and some local newsgathering, at local source, say, oh I don’t know, through something like Kiltr WiFi, circumventing the big data hogs, do you think it would be something desirable?
Or would you rather take to the local Facebook page and have a moan about the failing numbers of the local newpaper, or rant on Twitter or your own Facebook feed about the preponderance of fake news? Wouldn’t it be a far more pleasing and proactive prospect (as we move past the absurdities of the British based media landscape and the democratic deficits it reinforces, as we scorn the outrageous reporting from the national broadcaster of local election results in Scotland) to imagine and move towards a reinvigorated digital media landscape, with say 2-3 million Scots subscribing to digital journalism with integrity re-established, supported by a genuinely progressive provision and infrastructure for smart communities, at around that same rate a month?
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When the bitter hacks of the dying dead tree press fail to adapt and we all bemoan the death of journalism, we should declaim journalism is dead and long live journalism. We make sense of our world by telling and listening to stories. Our stories are driven by information, data and it has become the world’s most precious resource. And we’ve been fooled into giving it away for free just for another dopamine hit of social media, or to buy stuff we don’t really need (or certainly not on demand, like yesterday) to impress people we don’t really know or like. Shouldn’t we just put a paywall round it and own up to the cost?
The word is good, its just the code its written in, the language its spoken through isn’t always. 
The Scottish Enlightenment was driven by a democratised intellect and thriving publishing houses feeding it with revolutionising ideas, as opposed to the salons, the talking shops of the rest of Europe which served a similar function among a much less democratically educated elite. As the Fourth Industrial Revolution bites harder, ushering in the fourth era of digital journalism, which quite rightfully should tell the stories of its progress, draw a narrative from the endless data it produces, the foundations are laid for Scotland to be in its vanguard. We can stand on the frontlines, with simple paywalls ringfencing loyalty, trust, community and quality journalism, marking them out as trenches, battlelines in the war for reality.
Like the English language, like any words, data, any code, only has power in how it is used, how the best obtainable version of the truth is arrived at through it. In the coming battles for our rights to determine that, will you realise how much it has cost you thus far and dip your hand in your pocket? Or will you let the new playground bullies keep doing it for you?

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