Do you get sudden flashes of recall for no obvious reason?  Last week  I recalled a moment forgotten for a decade, and found it raised a question that I really wanted to ask. I remembered a panel at an MIT seminar in the mid-nineties. I seem to recall that Stewart Brand was one of the experts, and also Arno Penzias (who kindly signed my copy of his book) but despite my research efforts on the web I have lost the actual event and what was said. But I do recall my question (why do one’s own infelicities get remembered?) and the answers. Having spent a few years watching lawyers interface with primitive online services, I asked whether it was true that the keyboard was the greatest barrier between the internet and mass usage, and whether we would make much progress before it was abolished and replaced by a more sympathetic way of getting into networked communication.

And, yes, I am blushing slightly as I write this on my keyboard. But I have at least, in some arcane memory reflux, remembered their answers. The three gurus agreed that the keyboard was a problem – all about speed, the crazy survival of Qwerty as an organizational principle, and the then low-status of keyboarding (only for clerks and secretaries). One said that voice was the obvious answer, and that perfecting voice recognition and, alongside it, linguistic exchange, was the only reasonable step forward. After all, merely going to another interface without solving the great problem that users do not understand each other’s languages was pointless. The next guy up said that we were entering the age of the sensor and the camera, and that all interfaces would be driven by video and image, with minimal input from choice keys on a selection device. And the third quoted William Gibson and insisted that we would be actors on our own stage, avatars within individualized interfaces where we could simply select the services we needed and “physically” go where we wanted to go in the networks.

Well, it was a long time ago, and billions of people are now using hopeless Qwerty to communicate in the network. But the predictions came to mind, and having uttered them, it also occurred to me that they need updating. For example, wearable computing seems like an effort to merge the man into the machine and this implies a wonderful world where, as Sergey Brin demonstrated to the  New York Times, even the Google inventor can become 60% machine on a transient basis. While the Singularity University always seems a bit like Silicon Valley at its most crackpot ( we are steadily interfacing with thinking computing in a way hard to envisage a decade ago, and we shall see the output of this first in workflow and process solutions.

The area of Media Lab work that most intrigued me all that time ago was Seymour Papert and LEGO. We were going to make such strides in education so quickly, but like our work on replacing this keyboard, progress has been agonizingly slow. But, soft, here comes Hope from South Korea, bearing a robot called EngKey who recognizes English and will replace all those gap year students in South Korean classrooms who are now, in the new austerity, too expensive to import. Anyway, humans were never so very good at teaching: you want something endlessly patient and wholly repetitive, as well as accurate in assessment. Robots are far better equipped.

So as it happens we were looking in the wrong direction in this discussion on interfaces. The key to change was not what we needed to do to interact better with the machine, but what the machine could be developed to do to work more sentiently with us. So only when the machine recognizes our facial expressions ( and listens to our speech intonations will progress be made. Progress today, in terms of helping autistic children or pre-schoolers (the RUBI Project at San Diego), and progress tomorrow in terms of the productivity gains that robotics will deliver in workflow and information handling.

This is all a long diatribe to encourage all of us to keep reading science fiction and going to conferences where you don’t understand what is being said: if my experience is anything to go by, you one day will. And then you will be much more able to understand why some things happen immediately and some things seem to be going backward rather than forward. On the latter topic, I saw today (an event like the first cuckoo of Spring) my first report on what has happened at The Times following the imposition of the paywall: Experian Hitwise reports that during the five weeks when readers were asked to register their payment details, visits to the site fell 33%, and that they are now off by 66%. So where will they go when the introductory special offer comes off? You soon won’t even be able get your robot to read it.

Do you have a moment? Let me take you to a site I know, where you can see a government caught in a quandary. Its at https://www.schoolsrecruitment. and it represents the entanglement of media, a networked society, and the controlling urges of government in a fairly graphic way. The dilemma for the UK’s brand new Con-Lib coalition is as follows:

* the previous lot, outed on May 11, were moving in education towards the idea that teacher and school staff recruitment was best controlled by government on its own website. This is it, launched only 3 months before the UK election.

* one of the big bills for local government in the UK is teacher advertising. If this were to be done by government itself on the web, serious savings could be made, and these could be channelled back into the education system.

* futhermore, government doing the advertising enables better quality control to take place, offers ways of monitoring local government practises and ensuring compliance. And online application using government approved forms would create productivity gains and entrench better human resources practises. And government need not expand to contain the new service – it has been outsourced to Tribal Education, a supplier whose service fees would be less than the annual cost of advertising every vacancy in the commercial education press.

* and, what is more, the previous government can be blamed for the scheme! Surely a winner, then?

Hold on a minute. I did type “commercial education press”, didn’t I? Well, yes, there is one, led by the venerable Times Education Supplement (TES). Does it do teaching jobs online? Yes, it has an excellent service, developed since Mr Murdoch’s News International sold this unit away from Times Newspapers, fearing as he did that government may pull this trick. Now its owned by private equity investors who have courageously re-invested in it to modernize it, enable it to beat off web competition from eTeach and, to my great delight, have re-created it as a portal for communications amongst teachers. It has a great role yet to play in the exchange of resources in the UK teaching marketplace.

But will it be able to play that role if government policy cuts off its lifeline advertising revenues? Hard to say, but surely a Conservative government, devoted to the interests of private enterprize, will discontinue such a media abusive policy and ensure that this saving is not made. Even harder to say, in my view: government now has a bigger reason for not doing anything about putting  this into reverse – cost reduction beats out ideology in most instances.

Of course, that begs the question of whether costs really will be reduced this way. Last time round this track in the UK, it was National Health Service jobs. Britain’s NHS, with 1.6 million employees (third in the world behind the Red Army and the Indian Railways), was and is a huge recruitment advertising engine. Creating NHS Jobs permanently blighted the prospects of the nursing press and health management publishing in the UK, but there was a private sector winner, in the form of DMGT’s Jobsite, who leased the systems it used to the NHS in return for being able to mirror the NHS site, getting traffic though no revenues. The NHS system is now embedded in NHS personnel practise and there can be no going back.

So government has the capacity to blight whole sectors of publishing activity through re-inventing publisher services on the web? You betcha, and if you doubt, look at the UK’s regional press, once deeply dependent on local government advertising. The huge decline in local press interests, despite all the bleatings of politicians who professed their devotion to the local rag, was as much about the loss of government advertising as anything. And is this inevitable and should it be reversed? Given that government uses the network less effectively and in a more costly way than most users, there is a good case for advising them to stay clear. But that will not happen.

In a society where publishing is increasingly democratized, government will see its chance. And the ability to control and direct is irresistable. If the instrument of control is a job ad, then so be it. The advice to a Young Publisher may well be “Join the civil service” in due course, but for society at large this process may create a democratic deficit.

Come to think of it, did I describe that website as a policy ruin? I was wrong. It is a foundation for the next incumbent to build a more ideologically correct version. But how I wish that I was wrong about that too.

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