Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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17/4/16: the power of the Internet, for good and bad

I've been racking my brains trying to remember when I first used the Internet.  I think it was in the early 1990s at my brother's house with a dial up connection at a speed which was fine given the content available at the time.  Because my first experience of computers was at school in the mid 1970s when we had a terminal which linked by phone to a computer somewhere in central London, initially the Internet seemed to me to be a step backwards, it took a while to see quite what the benefits were.

Starting as a PhD student in the mid 1990s I had access to the Internet at college, and used it shortly after starting to download school inspection reports for the purpose of obtaining and collating some statistical information they contained.  By about 1998 I had my own Internet connection at home, and since then it's become an increasingly normal part of life, both personally and professionally.  So whilst I along with all other teachers and lecturers will recite, "Wikipedia is not an academic source" from time to time, giving the entry on President Julius Nyerere as an example of a piece which takes a highly partisan view of his time leading Tanzania, I'm quite happy to use it myself as a very useful and quick way of finding information on all kinds of topics.  And, of course, I use it in writing this blog, eg. in this entry to firm up my memory of the judge who said of Paul Gascoigne, "Is that association or rugby football?" and this blog entry when I was wanting quotations from Margaret Thatcher.  Theoretically it would have been possible to find this without the Internet, but it would have been massively time consuming and hugely out of proportion to my need for this information.

But, no matter how much I use it now, the fact remains that I came to the Internet in adult life, and have not lost the, "My goodness, isn't this amazing!" feeling.  No matter how often I use it, or email colleagues across the world to then get real time responses, there is still this sense of awe and wonder about the whole thing.  Meanwhile, of course, there's a whole new generation now in adult life for whom the Internet is entirely normal, something that's been around as long as they can remember and as much part of their landscape as television and sofas.

In a very important sense I want to suggest that it is precisely this sense of awe and wonder that old fogeys like me still feel about the Internet which means that we understand it better than those for whom it is normal.  Neils Bohr reputedly said, "Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it." (take a wild guess how I got this quotation!)  Similarly, I suggest, anybody who is not shocked by the power of the Internet, that anybody in the world can post anything which can be ready by anybody else in the world - all 7 billion people, it's amazing here how many people here have access to the Internet including through smart phones - has not really understood what it's all about.  One dreadful example of the power of the Internet is given in this news story about one person willing to be eaten finding another person wishing to eat him.  Whilst theoretically they could have met in other ways, the nature of the Internet massively increases the chance of people with such terrible, complementary and rare desires making contact.

So, I'm aware in writing this blog that I get between 100 and 200 hits per day, including people searching for 'bijaji' and 'Lodonga' on Google images (number 1, 4, 5, 6... and number 2 respectively).  I include it on my CV, both because it's normal to mention 'Other interests' and this is something which is important to me, but also because I'm aware that this blog comes up number 1 on Google when you search on my name.  I know for a fact that my readership includes family members, current and past colleagues, current and past students, and many more.  I do sometimes say that there's more information to be had from my privately than I put here, keeping to strict self-imposed rules.  The only person who can ever come across as an idiot is me.  Nothing I write can be remotely embarrassing to anybody else.

Meanwhile, on two quite separate occasions in my previous job (or my previous job but one, see what I'm doing here in obscuring timelines?) it fell to me to have difficult conversations with then current students about what they were writing on their blogs.  One of them actually said at one stage, "This is my private diary."  Excuse me?  You put a post on the Internet and then say it is private?  To quote John McEnroe (again showing my age, for anybody too young to remember, a volatile and brilliant tennis player 30 years ago), "You cannot be serious!"  The other thought he was hiding behind anonymity - but once he had named the school in which he was on placement in an unguarded moment, it was immediately obvious who he was.  Because they had grown up with the Internet around them, the familiarity meant that they did not take the care needed to ensure that what they wrote met the professional standards required of any teacher, beginning or otherwise.  And it's not difficult to find stories like this one about employees being disciplined over their use of Facebook in criticising their bosses.  Whatever the rights and wrongs here in terms of freedom of speech and professional standards, the face remains, what goes on the Internet can be read by anybody, thinking you can hide behind anonymity or closed groups is misguided.

The reason this is on my mind at the moment is because of this recent news story about the media storm created by Hilde Lysiak, a 9 year old American girl who used her 2 year online village newsletter to report an alleged murder very soon after the death had occurred before the police were releasing any details of their investigation.

What do I make of this story?  Firstly, huge congratulations to Hilde who, at the age of 7, spotted a gap in the market in that the small town in which she lived had no newspaper of its own, created it online and has kept it going ever since, mostly with about 4 posts per month but a huge increase more recently.  Whether it's in journalism or some other profession, there's no question in my mind that this girl has an amazing future ahead of her!  Back stories include things like the arrival of a new police officer in town with 'My cousins are coming to stay!", with a 12 year old agony aunt solemnly answering questions posed by other youngsters concerned about the possibility of becoming infected with the Ebola virus in the middle of Pennsylvania.

In a previous generation, I suppose she would have copied the newsletter out by hand, possibly getting others to help, typed it out with carbon paper to make copies, or maybe used a John Bull printing set.  The small town venture would have stayed within the small town.

Leaving aside the fact that this newsletter was posted online, is it appropriate for 9 year olds to be reporting on local alleged murders?  There are so many reasons I can think of to give the answer, 'No' here.  Working without professional training or the oversight of an editor, there is the very real possibility of writing something which compromises the police investigation and convicting the perpetrator once caught.  And there is the very real risk of action on the grounds of libel, and other more immediate action in wading into an issue with bereaved and quite likely very angry people involved, provoking huge emotion not necessarily rationally expressed.  This could have happened had the newsletter been hand copied.  Putting it on the Internet intensifies these possibilities massively, putting the girl potentially at real risk of harm.  Where, I wonder, are the parents or guardians in all this?  Hilde may not want them to be curtailing her activities but I strongly suggests she needs clear parental supervision right now.

I would say that some of the negative comments posted about this were repulsive, criticising Hilde for stepping beyond reasonable bounds of a 9 year old but using language quite inappropriate for addressing that age group.  Maybe this is a further example of taking the Internet granted, thinking that we can say anything to anybody however and whenever we like with no repercussions?


So, where does all this leave us?  Clearly the Internet is here to stay.  In the great scheme of things, it is still extremely new, with protocols still being devised.  Meanwhile, speaking as a blogger four years in and as somebody with considerable experience working with professionals at different levels of seniority, let me say this: ensure that you are happy that anything you post on the Internet should be read by absolutely anybody you know now, have previously known and will meet in the future, knowing exactly who you are.  Once it's posted you have no control over your readership.  The Internet has huge potential for good, let's harness that, taking all reasonable steps to minimise the harm that it can do.

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