Wednesday, October 27, 2010

How much does the internet weigh? eChallenges gives food for thought

After Brussels and OGF yesterday, today GridCast travels to eChallenges in Warsaw. We all felt extremely welcome to Poland after official hellos from no less than three Undersecretaries of State – for Tourism and Sport, for Infrastructure and also for Science.

Mario Campolargo, Director of DG Information Society and Media in the European Commission, also welcomed us to the event, introducing the newly launched Digital Agenda for Europe. “We are on the verge of a new revolution, a new renaissance,” announced Campolargo.

David Broster of EU Joint Research Unit IPTS in Seville then joined us to talk about the future internet. Users of the internet currently number at around 2 billion, and 50% have at some point engaged with social networking. If they are under 24, make that 90%, all in all generating around 5 exobytes of data. As Broster put it, a massive amount of stuff, accessed by the masses.

But what are the challenges for the future? If you think of the internet as a convoluted labyrinth of truths, how do you ferret out the real information – and who do you trust? With everyone searching for the ‘truth’ on the banking crisis, swine flu and global warming to name just a few, how do you discriminate, assimilate and incorporate all the information. That’s Challenge #1.

Challenge #2 is how to build in all these online activities into our teaching structure. If everything we know now will be out of date in 5 years, and schools are preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet, what do exams mean? Learning doesn’t stop at school, now we can learn all our lives without really trying but it might be difficult to prove it to an employer. Some might argue that spending hours on social networks is fairly meaningless. But research shows that people don’t engage in meaningless behaviour for very long (Henry Jenkins, MIT). And if 2 billion people are engaged in that behaviour, perhaps it’s time to rethink your definition of ‘meaningless’.

Another challenge is to deal with managing our online identities – do we use the same one when shopping, interacting with colleagues, networking with friends? Once out there, our identities cannot easily be recalled or deleted. They can cast a long shadow, and unlike our real shadow, we can’t always take them with us when we leave. There’s always the potential for our identities to be turned against us and misused – something that the upcoming social media generation is perhaps not as concerned about as it should be, according to Broster.

So, much food for thought from David Broster - it will be interesting to see the outcomes of his research in these areas, as they will impact all of us in our increasingly digital lives. And the weight of the internet? If you turn the data into electrons and add them up, it comes out at roughly 50 grams - so about the same as a large glass of Polish vodka. Cheers!

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