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Livescribe Sky smartpen and the starter notebook
Livescribe Sky and the starter notebook

From a journalist’s point of view LiveScribe’s original Pulse smartpen was one of the greatest inventions of the last decade.

Pulse was a large ball-point pen that can record sound as you write in a special notebook. It syncs to a computer and downloads the audio along with an image of the pen-written notes. Point the pen at the notes, or your cursor at the on-screen notes and the audio track picks up from that point. There was also an add-on handwriting recognition app.

For my work it was nothing short of brilliant. I could find a quite spot at an event like NetHui, go back over the highlights of a session and write a great, accurate story in minutes.

The day my Livescribe Sky smartpen died

Sadly my Pulse smartpen died. I replaced it with a newer model, the Wi-Fi Sky smartpen. And that’s where my problems begin.

I’ve used the Livescribe Sky smartpen at other events, but NetHui crams more sessions into a day than conventional conferences. The original pen was good for a whole week on a single battery charge, the Sky barely makes it through a working day. In fact, the battery ran out of juice before Monday was over.

That’s not the only problem. Although there’s a solid wi-fi network at NetHui, it was congested at times. I set the pen to sync when I close a file – that’s normally at the end of a session. Syncing rarely takes long, it can take less than a minute, but at NetHui I was often ten minutes into the next session before syncing finished. Not good.

The other change between the Pulse and the Sky was switching from a stand-alone LiveScribe app to syncing with Evernote. Evernote is fine, but being able to turn my handwritten notes into text was a great productivity helper, the new software doesn’t seem to do this.

Between batteries draining too fast and time lost through syncing, I missed some great quotes, I still have handwritten notes, but that’s not as useful as being able to pluck quotes out of the air.

Three busy days, a total of 65 sessions and hundreds of conversations meant NetHui gave everyone who took part plenty to think about. It’s an open conference, organisers encourage delegates to participate. That makes it New Zealand’s biggest technology learning experience.

There’s no way to squeeze all the insights into a single, simple blog post. However a few big themes emerged:

1. We can change the internet

9242102875_cd9744dc37_mIf I came away from NetHui with just one thought, it is that New Zealand’s internet community wields the power to change things. The message came up again and again in different guises. Monday’s InTAC workshop was specifically about influencing New Zealand’s internet future, many of us attending committed to small tasks pushing those goals forward.

2. We can change politics

Clare Curran test-marketing the adopt-an-MP idea on Gareth Hughes
Clare Curran test-marketing the adopt-an-MP idea on Gareth Hughes

A remark from Labour communications spokesperson Clare Curran may have sparked a movement. She suggested the audience adopt an MP to tell them about matters like copyright law and other online issues. Within a couple of hours a team of NetHui geek women, Aurynn Shaw, Merrin Macleod and Megan Bowra-Dean whipped up a site to make that task easier. Brilliant work.

3. Information security and privacy hot button

Rochelle Furneaux, Mathias Ortmann and Bram van der Kolk discuss technologies to protect privacy
Rochelle Furneaux, Mathias Ortmann and Bram van der Kolk discuss technologies to protect privacy

People may feel powerless to do much about information security and privacy, but that doesn’t mean they are happy with the status quo and it doesn’t mean they aren’t groping for ways to regain control. While they may have belonged to geeks in the past, I sensed a definite mood that these issues are moving onto the broader political agenda. That’s something our leaders need to watch closely.

4. The establishment position on surveillance isn’t monolithic

9250268161_f7b6b78e1f_mThe panel on state surveillance didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but it’s clear New Zealand’s establishment doesn’t present a united front when it comes to spying on citizens. Meanwhile there were clear and well articulated objections from delegates. Going by the mood at NetHui the government is out of touch with popular feeling and with the expert security community on this one – that’s a politically awkward place to be.

5. Poorer schools have more to gain from the internet than rich ones

Technology can do wonderful things for education. As Point England principal Russell Burt made clear, it can transform the lives of those students at the bottom of the economic heap and give people a voice.

6. There’s little love for Sky TV

I lost count of how many negative things people said about Sky TV at NetHui. I didn’t hear one remotely positive comment. Does this matter? More than you might imagine. While people at NetHui like to think of themselves as ordinary New Zealanders, in reality they are in the technology vanguard. Many, if not most, live post-TV lives. Soon the rest of New Zealand will catch up.

7. Limited optimism on rural broadband

Facilitator Reg Hammond kickstarts discussion on rural connectivity
Facilitator Reg Hammond kickstarts discussion on rural connectivity

We’re seeing real traction getting broadband out to remote areas of New Zealand, but huge barriers remain to filling in the “nooks and crannies”. The biggest issue seems to be dealing with low income consumers and places like marae. There are parts of this job that simply can’t be left to market forces. My gut feeling is that politicians and industry players are putting the more difficult rural connections in the “too hard” basket. This may not be fixed without more public money.

8. The future is uncertain, that’s not a bad thing

9241934625_e415bf5477_mBlogger and keynote speaker Quinn Norton is watching the social changes driven by an open Internet. She talks of an “emergent and feral collective”. While this functions far better than you might expect, it is unpredictable and chaotic. There’s also uncertainty about what the UFB network will deliver, discussions on possible “killer apps” hit a brick wall – although I have an opinion on that:

9. New Zealand recorded music is a worse shape than we thought

Russell Brown and Samuel Flynn Scott discussing the state of the music industry online

Everyone knows the recorded music industry is in a bad way and that digital sales in no way make up the shortfall. What wasn’t obvious until NetHui is the utter collapse of recorded music sales. Music lawyer Chris Hocquard says even The Warehouse isn’t trying any more. Retail music sales have collapsed with shift away from physical. NetHui’s music panel isn’t sure if the sales have gone digital.

10. The people have spoken

Delegates are encouraged to speak
Delegates are encouraged to speak

Participation is NetHui’s greatest strength. Delegates don’t just get to hear from industry experts and gurus – there are many chances to contribute. I suspect this is especially true for women and other groups which can at times struggle to get a hearing at technology-focused events. I’m convinced I learned more from the crowd than from the stage over the three days of NetHui.

Convener Laurence Millar and the panel discussing state surveillance at NetHui 2013. From left to right: Laurence Miller, Dr. Paul Buchanan, Ian Apperley, Sir Bruce Ferguson and Michael Wigley.

Legislation proposing to extend the powers of the Government Communications Security Bureau is too important to rush through Parliament without more debate. That’s the consensus of the panel discussing state surveillance and the GCSB at NetHui 2013.

Significantly the panel included former GCSB director Sir Bruce Ferguson who told delegates there’s a need for an apolitical, but robust debate about this kind of legislation. Ferguson says it’s not possible for a completely open debate, but some of it could be transparent: “The current bill requires proper research.”

He says there’s a genuine need for intelligence agencies and, generally, New Zealand has the right balance between the right to live freely and he need for security.

Ferguson says he didn’t agree with the prime minister’s appointment of the new GCSB head. He says it should be an independent appointment, not an old school friend of John Key’s. He says that, previously, for the GCSB to spy on a New Zealander, the director needed a warrant from the head of police or the SIS.

The panel also included cloud consultant Ian Apperley, solicitor Michael Wigley and security expert Paul Buchanan.

Fig leaf

Buchanan won applause from the audience when he described terrorism as “a fig leaf used by the intelligence industry to legitimise what they do”. He says the reality is that 90 percent of their work involves spying on other states and agencies. And anyway, “with Prism and all the other intelligence at their disposal, the US government couldn’t stop the Boston bombings”.

He also says terrorism is a terrible thing, but it isn’t a threat to any state or democracy. Buchanan thinks fighting terrorism should be treated as a criminal matter, not a war, and dealt with by Police.

Not just governments

Apperley describes targeted spying is “a necessary evil”, but says wholesale surveillance of a population is unacceptable. However, it pointed out these days it isn’t just government keeping an eye on the population, big corporations and rogue actors like hackers are watching too. He says privacy becomes an individual’s responsibility and it isn’t something that can be left to ISPs.

As a cloud consultant, Apperley would like New Zealand to become the “Switzerland of the south”, a place people everywhere could trust to look after information. He says this is incompatible with the connection to the five eyes surveillance program.

Legal objection

Prime minister John Key says the NZ Law Society’s criticism of the GCSB bill is completely wrong. This annoys Michael Wigley who says: “Well Mr Key, you know best, we’re just lawyers with a concern for civil liberties, the rule of law, due process, we’ve studied this for years, but you’re the boss”.

Wigley is concerned about the serious risk of extra-judicial overreach and says the idea that the existing GCSB law is unclear is patently false. He says: “Any second year law student could understand the law.”

Keynote speaker Quinn Norton connects what is happening in today’s society as a result of the internet revolution and what happened 400 or so years ago when the printing press arrived.

In itself that’s not a particularly original observation. We’ve heard it a dozen times before. However, Norton brings the idea up to date comparing the way authorities, not just the United States, treat whistleblowers like Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange with their print revolution counterpart William Tyndale.

Tyndale upset the establishment translating the Bible in to English. Norton notes the parallels between Tyndale’s escape from England to continental Europe and today’s asylum-seeking whistleblowers.

And she hints at the ultimate fate: Tyndale was burnt to death for his so-called crimes. It’s a high price, but Tyndale’s work is still with us today. His Bible translation still has a huge resonance for Christians, but beyond the religious sphere his influence on the English language compares with Shakespeare.

Let there be light

Norton points out “let there be light” was one of Tyndale’s lines. It could be the motto of today’s whistleblowers.

Tyndale and the printing press didn’t just change the way people got information, they changed the way people think. The renaissance and the enlightenment were direct consequences. Fast forward 400 years and we’re seeing much the same. Norton’s message is an open and chaotic internet is now changing the way today’s people see the world.

It’s not all positive and it’s not all high-minded. We get to see a lot more cat pictures.

More ideas

Two important ideas. Today we, potentially, are all publishers and there are no leaders in the movements which are swirling about in the wake of the free and open internet. She says: “Leaders themselves only last as people if they lay down leadership quickly”, and that means something fundamental is going on with the way people relate to government and political leadership.

Events in places like Egypt and Turkey illustrate the way political control is moving away from power elites towards a connected population. Norton describes this as an “emergent and feral collective”. It may not sound promising, but it works.

Slime mould of humanity

Norton has an ability to encapsulate complex thoughts in a series of tweet-like statements: “slime mould of humanity” is a fabulous metaphor.

Apparently this low form of life operates an underground network in the US linking forests across a wide area and acting as a communications medium. It is, of course, entirely leaderless. Slime mould isn’t bright either, but collectively it still manages to find a way out of mazes.

Governments and other establishment organisations struggle to deal with the changes, in part that because they don’t speak the same language. She says: “An incompetent networked organism is meeting a competent but confused and powerful system that would just like it to all go away.”

TLDNR – too long, did not read.

It’s the kind of comment you might expect to hear in an online forum, not from a senior news executive at the nation’s largest newspaper. And certainly not in the context where it was used in front of former New Zealand Herald feature writer Chris Barton.

That snide comment tells you the real trouble with journalism – the people running the industry simply don’t get it. There’s a lot they just don’t get.

Depth and prestige

For the best part of a decade Barton worked on the kind of long-form, in-depth feature stories which win prizes and readers for newspapers. They add depth to the paper and prestige to the masthead.

Perhaps they weren’t read by everyone. But many readers would buy the Weekend Herald especially to get the more expansive, intelligent features.

By the time Barton left the Herald last year, the feature department was effectively finished. In depth features are no longer part of the paper’s mix.

Read on

And anyway, Too long, didn’t read is nonsense. People do read long form stories. They read them online and they continue to read them in magazines.

They read even longer stories. There’s a special name we give to those even longer stories, we call them books. They can be printed, although increasingly they are digital.

The Scoop Foundation Journalism

Barton was speaking at a session run by The Scoop Foundation. It’s a public interest journalism organisation set up by Alison McCulloch and Alistair Thompson to fund journalism projects.

Also at the presentation was The Science Media Centre’s Peter Griffin. He talked of his experiences looking at how similar organisations in the USA have stepped into to cover some of the issues journalists might have covered for large newspapers. He says there’s potential to raise money in New Zealand from philanthropic trusts.