News, media & communications

Kids don’t read books

When the Harry Potter phenomenon was at its height, people were convinced that kids had started reading books again. This may have been just clever marketing. The figures show that kids are still not reading books. A 2011 National Literacy Trust survey found a third of British children do not own books and 19% of them were below the reading level for their age, compared with 7.6% who owned books. An OECD study found, of 24 industrialised countries, England’s were the only literacy and numeracy levels to go backwards – and these skills were lower in youth aged 16-24. What is happening?

Some believe that you need to introduce books to children while they are young; others that the emotionally formative teenage years are the best time. While kids spend 12% of their time at school, this leaves a good chunk of home time when they could be reading. This means the home environment is crucial for discovering reading for pleasure.

Reading for pleasure is associated with doing well at school or college. So forcing children to read books they do not enjoy is not going to help. The recent furore about what books children should read for their GCSE is essentially a battle between ‘hard’ books, like Shakespeare, or ‘easy’ books, like Meyer’s Twilight series. Children who are essentially disposed to reading will be more willing to make the effort.

Since more than 60% of 18-30 year olds would rather watch TV or DVDs than read books, they do not associate reading with pleasure. This has implications for the 3 billion pounds book market. When people stopped buying records, they still kept paying for music. If people stop buying books, will they stop reading?

As always, people are looking to new technologies as a way of drawing kids back to reading. It is still early days for interactive ebooks, which offer lots of endings, with audio and video extras. Just as the music industry now creates more opportunities to meet buyers (see Back to record shops), the book industry could offer more events and use social media to bring stories to life.

We think laptops and notepads have encouraged some men to read more than they did when there were only books available. But there is a difference between reading and skimming. It seems that people are losing the ability to concentrate on one thing for any length of time. One can only read for pleasure with concentration and commitment and these are becoming old fashioned values.

Ref: Financial Times (UK), 29-30 March 2014, The language instinct. H Mance.
Search words: children, reading, literacy, books, publishers, technology, education, home, pleasure, numeracy, TV, OECD, culture.
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My friend is a robot

The days of the personal assistant robot are fast approaching. In some ways, they could become the partner you always wanted, someone who knows you inside out and knows exactly what to do (vacuum the carpet, make an Earl Grey tea). The first generation of robots is already on sale, and one of them is the SociBot-Mini.

This is a 60 centimetre high robot, created by Engineered Arts, UK, which uses a depth-sensing camera to interpret gestures and a webcam to interpret facial expressions. Vision software allows it to recognise people, work out their mood from grimaces or smiles, and guess their age. Last, chatbot software means it can achieve simple conversations. The robot has a transparent plastic face with contours and is backlit with a digital projector. Spookily, it can carry your face, your friend’s face or a generic face. Imagine looking at yourself!

The robot can be used to add telepresence to voice calls, to act as a terminal in a mall, airport or bank, or to be your own personal assistant. We imagine these robots will start to be used to replace expensive employees, while offering relatively simple services at lower cost. Robots don’t get sick or take holidays. It’s probably quite easy to have a relationship with one, too.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 29 March 2014, Talk to the head. P Marks.
Search words: robot, crowdfunding, sensors, SociBot-Mini, Engineered Arts, terminal, depth-sensing, vision, speech, chatbot, telepresence, Royal Institute of Technology, Skype.
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Young people and porn

The internet provides a very effective means of promoting pornography to all, whether you are child or adult. The authorities talk about filtering and censorship; others say there is nothing inherently wrong with pornography. It is a difficult topic, so often heavily loaded with religious judgment and culturally ingrained ethics. So what do we make of the fact that ‘sexting’ – sending explicit sexual images of yourself or others – is a ‘typical’ part of teenage relationships?

In Australia, sexting is on the rise and, in one state, 44 children have been charged with pornography offences. Another state found one in five children aged 10 to 15 had either sent or received an explicit text. Meanwhile, a national survey running since 1992, looks into the sexual behaviour and attitudes of 2,000 16-18 year olds. It found, of those who are sexually active, 84% said they had received a sexually explicit text and 72% said they had sent one. Half of this group said they had sent an explicit photo or video of themselves and 70% said they received one.

When researchers say there is a ‘paucity of evidence’ about the impact of pornography on young people, it is surprising they have not considered sexting. Just as technology provides the means to access pornography, so it provides the means to create your own version of it. It is unlikely that 16-18 year olds who sext have thought about the possible impacts of doing so.

Pornography is linked to unrealistic attitudes towards sex, feelings about women as sex objects and fixed ideas about gender roles. It is viewed by children and young people, who are still learning about themselves and each other. Governments seem to be opposed to teaching about intimate relationships in schools, even though schools are there to help children deal with adult life. They tend to place the onus on parents, who are usually the last people children want to talk about sex with. Meanwhile, our sexualised environment of music videos, TV and advertising offers all kinds of unhelpful messages about sexuality and what is appropriate behaviour. Rather than focus on pornography, what can be done to change the content of everyday media?

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 14 December 2013, Offensive materials. M Limmer and M Horvath.
ABC, 11 April 2014, Sexting offences: SA leading push for national laws and 4 May 2014, Sending and receiving sexually explicit messages a normal part of teenage relationships, survey finds.
Search words: sexual exploitation, children, teenagers, violence, pornography, censorship, attitudes, sexuality, expectations, gender roles, risky behaviour, education, empowerment, photos, video, texting, explicit, illegal, relationships.
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How to handle an internet blackout

We know we can’t live without the internet. Boston Consulting Group found 73% of Americans would give up alcohol, 69% coffee and 21% said they would go a whole year without sex rather than give up the internet. This is why people are looking for ways to maintain digital communications if there is an internet blackout. After the small-scale outage in New York during Hurricane Sandy, Eyebeam, a non-profit, has been testing communication networks built on battery power and mobile devices.

The idea is to create a meshnet. One volunteer carries an ethernet cable in a wireless router, powered by a battery. He links up with other volunteer routers connected through a smartphone. They are able to use ChatSecure, a peer-to-peer communication that does not need the internet to work but does need a network. They download a hacked version of F-Droid, which lets each person’s phone behave as a server so others can download their version from that server.

The meshnet is created with a networking toolkit called Commotion, created by the Open Technology Institute (US). The OTI was there with its meshnet when Hurricane Sandy hit and the US Federal Emergency Agency even plugged its high bandwidth satellite into it to connect to the community and the Red Cross.

This story reveals two things: first, we are far too reliant on centralised communications provided by Big Tech and that makes us extremely vulnerable to attack or natural disaster. Second, we can live without Big Tech if we have to, or want to. Maybe it’s time to consider making provision and maintenance of the internet more local.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 19 April 2014, When the internet dies, H Hodson.
Search words: internet, blackout, New York, communication networks, battery power, mobiles, smartphone, ChatSecure, F-Droid, Wifi, Open Technology Institute, meshnet, Red Hook Initiative, Big Tech.
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What’s up with WhatsApp?

Facebook paid $US19 billion for WhatsApp, the most ever paid for a company backed by venture capital. It’s an almost free messaging service for smartphones – free in the first year and only US99 cents a year afterwards. It makes traditional SMS and MMS look very expensive. Yet it is hard to imagine that Facebook could ever get a return on its billions with an almost free service.

The reason for apps like WhatsApp, Viber and WeChat, is the explosion in web-enabled smartphones and decline in the cost of building start-ups. WhatsApp reached 450 million users in 3 years, faster than any other service including Facebook, and 72% of users are on it everyday. Young people don’t have money to spend on paid SMS. Meanwhile, start-ups can buy cheap computing capacity from the cloud, and create global businesses on very low budgets. WhatsApp employs only 32 software engineers, while supporting the equivalent number of SMS messages being handled by telecoms.

Now that Facebook is losing its cool with young people, WhatsApp may provide the next opportunity to connect with them. It attracts 1 million new users every day and if, one day, they are willing to pay for the service, the company could be very profitable. For comparison, Twitter reported $US665 million in sales during 2013 and has a market capitalisation of $US30 billion. WhatsApp could do the same, as long as we have this rampant need to send each other messages across the globe. But we do like it free.

Ref: The Economist (UK), 22 February 2014, Getting the messages. Anon.
Search words: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, WhatsApp, shares, apps, We Chat, smartphones, start-ups, web service, addiction, casual-gaming, Candy Crush Saga, cloud computing, budgets, cool, Instagram, Twitter, advertising.
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