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How Complex is the Net?

Craig Calhoun's response to Manuel Castells' trilogy The Information Age, brings up an important topic and one which comes to my mind often, namely that of the human experience of infinity, and a related concept, namely complexity. Similarly to Baudrillard, Calhoun questions whether we can track complexity in, e.g., global power relations or finance markets simply using personal experience. He points out that the tools made available to us by analysis etc. are in contrast to personal experience and are or may be required for a deeper understanding of globalisation.

I use the word complexity in the above, whereas Calhoun just intimates it. The complexity I refer to is counter-intuitive and not accessible to ready reasoning by laypersons. So to most of the planet's inhabitants the discussion is in fact incomprehensible and they react in wonderment at developments around them and in the news about politics etc.

The relationship between these two concepts is mathematically founded. Complexity arises in real world networks when networks along several related dimensions are considered. Trying to understand such interrelatedness by simple brute force enumeration (simply counting individual pairs of relationships) in diverse networks as biological, political, social, etc. generates massive numbers. These numbers, although they can be made to dwarf such physical amounts as the number of atoms presumed to exist in the entire universe simply by increasing the number of networks involved in the analysis, still do not come close to infinity. In fact, one can prove that even as one uses this enumeration to "count up toward infinity" (something one cannot really do - hence the inverted commas), one is still just as far from ones goal as when one started. This is a typical counter-intuitive result that one experiences when dealing formally and logically with infinity, and one which cannot be derived from experience. Friends of mine, who say that they have experienced infinity in cosmic appreciation of some natural feature miss the point. That is that there can be no experience as such of infinity, unless it is mediated by the paradoxes formally demonstrated by mathematics, such as Hilbert's paradox of the Grand Hotel (how to get your room in a full hotel). Also in some of the proofs that demonstrate clearly the difference in types of infinity, one of the most elegant enlightening is Cantor's diagonal argument, fantastic and ably explained here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantor%27s_diagonal_argument). Humans cannot experience infinity, we can only experience mediocre amounts of information. We live in a very thin sandwich of reality which while appearing vast to us is very much finite. We are for instance not aware of the infinity of a continuous wave of a single note, our senses cannot perceive it. It is only through imagination and extrapolation that we can appreciate the very very large and the very very small. For instance, we can couple the sound of the note and the expression of that note as a line on an oscillograph, and a mathematical construct, the sine curve in order to get into the very very small. However, our extrapolations and imagination are still bound to our reality and they cannot possibly fathom experience (in a deep human sense) the paradoxes of infinity.

To come back to the discussion on understanding the complex systems that we have built up today, we can pose the question: are these finite or infinite systems? Any network theoretician will tell you, that a snapshot of the system is finite, no mater how many transactions at how many nodes on the graph, or how many arcs there are connecting these nodes. However, where the system does become infinite is in its dynamic nature over time. The arcs on the graph may namely be weighted with shifting weights at any point in time, and the graph can be seen as "multi-dimensional" as various nodes participate in several separate whose topology varies over time. Thus our analytical tools and experience cannot form a complete picture of the processes going on. We can only map portions of the processes in the Net in terms of snapshots or consider dynamic process in terms of reduced dimensionality and the tools we use are not founded in our experience, they are mathematical. The snapshots are thus immediately inaccurate as the network is constantly changing, also the process models are a priori inaccurate (like weather forecasts) -- we are able thus to postulate a "Net Uncertainty Principle" (a la Heisenberg), which states that the analysis of a single transaction won't tell us about the flows in the Net and an analysis of the flows will necessarily abstract which transactions took place. To make matters worse, there are large amounts of transactions about which it is extremely hard to get information. These transactions relate to "sensitive issues", such as weapons or drug transactions. These transactions only work if they are made in secret. Current regulations and the Net architecture allow this anonymity and secrecy.

In conclusion, we are dependent on formal methods to understand our world and to deepen our experience of it, but to make truly informed decisions and to make truly informed statements that can guide our nations and policies, we need to go beyond mere experience to analysis and then back again. This is one of the beautiful things about Manuel Castells' The Information Age trilogy. It is grounded strongly in his experience, but coupled with reviews of formal analyses and proofs. Further, the giddying high-level perspectives still hold today and strongly inform how the world has developed and also why Barack Obama's advances have been so slow. Castells manages to integrate formal ideals and analysis with experience to build new experience and thus to raise ones level of interaction with the world. Thus, in this instance, we come a step closer to experiencing the infinite within our networked world, but mathematically speaking our experience and analyses still leave us infinitely far from it.

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: December 25th 2010 04:40

Vulnerability and Empowerment

Recently, the following exchange occurred on the Dwesa mailing list of Rhodes University. I got permission to reprint it here, from Mario Marais and Caroline Khene. It was in response to a news article on CSIR training programmes in marginalised rural areas targeted at cyber-security (which I take to mean specifically security in a networked computer environment).
Ron:
What I always wonder when I read these stories is: have there been any reported cases of rural marginalised/disadvantaged computer users being defrauded by cyber-criminals or mobbed by facebook users, etc.?

Mario:
Not sure about that Ron! I'm not involved in this project, but what we have encountered is lots of PCs at schools that are crippled by viruses. What has your experience been?

Caroline:
I agree with Mario. They are in fact the most vulnerable, given they are not as informed about risks on the Internet. When we were in Dwesa, the youth were always downloading stuff from the Internet. Also, who knows who they'll meet online. Furthermore, the new services being introduced, e-government, e-business etc, obviously involves the circulation of private/sensitive information. There are a number of ethical aspects when it comes to ICT4D.

Ron:
I agree with Mario too.

@Mario: Viruses appear on computers almost immediately when we install
them anywhere. Even without Internet (which is restricted to only a few
computers at Nkwalini labs), almost all computers are infected because
of music and video sharing and outdated [Virus] scanners.

I also agree with any form of training and time spent in the community.
This is essential.

@Caroline: I agree that there are strong ethical aspects in ICTD. And
one thing we must encourage is empowerment and playing to strengths of
the rural people! So I do not agree that people in the rural areas are
the most vulnerable (especially as they are for the most part unbanked,
offline, have limited English knowledge and in general very very
cautious around technology). I would even go so far as to say that this
perspective promotes disempowerment of the rural people who do have a
culture and are in many instances proud and capable within their social
context.

Caroline:
@Ron. Yes you do make an important point. But perhaps you may have misunderstood me. I am referring to people who use the Internet or have
access to it via various projects or mobile phones. Informing them about risks in using the Internet or mobile services in fact empowers them. If we assume we all have a culture and are capable in our contexts, why then do we still need to inform each other about information security issues. Everyone, whether rural or not, needs to be informed. We are all vulnerable, but our advantage is that we are more informed (or not).

Ron:
Good points, yes, security should be part of any curriculum, and because it hasn't been in many cases, some people are more vulnerable than others - to paraphrase you, Caroline.
I think Caroline was quite kind to me in this debate. Of course, our aim is to get rural and uninformed people into the Internet more, so to argue that the rural people are not vulnerable because they are offline is to argue against our own work in ICTD!

The main point I was trying to make though, is once again the idea that everyone has strengths that development can and should play towards in order to activate the person who is the object of the development. There can be an uneasy relationship between development worker and target of the development work. The way out of this uneasiness is through "informed consent" -- an ethical consideration that research must be initiated in an open manner and results kept transparent. Such ethical considerations are fortunately anchored in the Rhodes University Ethical Standard, which applies to our work.

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: September 26th 2010 11:53

Eastern Cape ICT Summit

Very encouraging words were heard at the EC ICT Summit in Port Elizabeth (Nelson Mandela Bay) this morning from the Hon. Noxolo Kiviet, the province's Premier. Her prime rationale for why the EC government and Premier's Office is so interested in ICT development in this province, is that, "ICT's can mediate the relationship between citizen and state." Technology can "braoden the presence of state" for people especially in rural areas.

This is the enlightened stance that can bridge divides in our province between the impoverished rural areas and the highly developed sectors in cities and rurality. Ms. Kiviet called for an information driven approach to land reform, something that must surely happen as racial lines still distort the reality of the people populating this land.

Ms. Kiviet also told me that she has thrice in the last month been at schools in the Elliotdale area, near where our solar schools project has been realised and is running, and that her interests are aligned with the truly broad base. I believe that Ms. Kiviet will continue the kinds of broad based policies that we have seen from her female predecessor, Nosimo Balindlela. This bodes very well for our province.

Siyabulela!
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: August 17th 2010 09:12

A German, an American, a Zimbabwean, an Australian and a South African Get Into a Car...

Sound like a joke? Well it's not. We were an anthropologist, a soccer captain, a programmer, a sociologist and a social entrepreneur, and we were on our way to go and watch the opening game of the soccer world cup on a SolarWorld solar TV, several kilometres from the South African ESKOM grid (Lutz Scharf, Micah Rose, Susan Hansen, Rick Strickland and Ron Wertlen). SolarWorld had chosen the installation sites in early Summer and so the cold and unseasonal rain that met us as we turned off the N2 to head down to Nkwalini meant that the outdoor TV set could not be used. It also meant that the soccer training camp was curtailed due to the short daylight hours, something that the American planners had not counted on.

Still the soccer camp which included watching World Cup games on TV and practical exercises on the fields of Nkwalini (as bumpy as they are), brought some new insights about the game to the community and strengthened the bonds between visitors and community members.

It is my hope that we'll be able to get funding for a solar powered soccer field for a sport school or academy at Nkwalini. This is something that the community members can see immediate value in, and which could in an environmentally friendly manner lengthen activities in Winter (in particular) in a community which does not have much else and which is very passionate about soccer. This is something I have noticed during my time in the community and also on the that icy cold afternoon of the 11th of June 2010 in a dark community hall, when 300 community members (with only 2 Vuvzelas) cheered on the Bafana Bafana, in a gripping opening game.

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: July 27th 2010 08:11

Drought in the Eastern Cape

Understanding rural impoverished circumstances is quite difficult for people who live in suburban or urban areas. A city's veins are its water and effluent systems and its nerves are the communications and power networks. Living within such an organism and being part of it, one is shielded from all sorts of practicalities of life, which is why we live in cities and which is why they are recognised as being the potential tool to support a large number of humans on the planet in an ecologically sustainable manner.

Since the beginning of our Southern Summer, we have faced water restrictions in Grahamstown and all across the Eastern Cape. We have a fairly sizeable vegetable garden, which is partially also interspersed with the ornamental plants. Water restrictions during a drought are often a death sentence for a garden. One is prohibited from watering, using automatic means such a hose-pipe. All watering must take place manually.

Fetching and carrying water is one of the main tasks performed by an isiXhosa woman, living at the Siyakhula Living Lab. These days they have it easy. The water only needs to be fetched from the nearest community borehole, which may be 500m away. Formerly water may have had to be hauled much farther distances, especially in times of drought. Based on durable plastics, there are several inventions that aim to ease this task (e.g. the water barrel that is also a tyre, and can be pushed). These inventions are struggling to find their way into rural life though and at Nkwalini, one can see women carrying water in the traditional manner - on their heads.

Hauling bucket after bucket of water, just to keep the vegetables alive, I had plenty of time to ponder the rural fate, which involves many such chores, that we take for granted, and to ponder the activities with which we fill the saved time -- productive work, and for some of us, TV / games / etc.). I really enjoyed that reflexive aspect of the drought. I also marvelled at how well the veggies grew, which receive the daily bath water. These recipients of daily water grew magnificently and thrived. The hand watered plants just survived. This highlighted to me the need for drip irrigation schemes such as the ones piloted by SELF in Benin.

South Africa is very vulnerable to food scarcity, because its rural population is not farming veggies, hardly at all. David Martin calls it a joke compared to what he is seeing in South Asia. We need to wake up and use our resources better. Financial and natural resources can be used in win-win ways to boost productivity. For instance linking grants to food growing schemes. If paying out the grants (delivering money) is costing so much, why not deliver what the people are buying with that money from home-grow schemes - boosting employment in rural areas? The spare money should be invested in infrastructure further boosting employment in the rural areas as well as opening new possibilities for economic activity. South Africa is a rich country -- with the potential of being a model African country. That is something I'd like to see.
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: April 25th 2010 05:55

President Zuma on ICT for Africa at the AU

In a very telegraphic style, Jacob Zuma pointed out that ICT's are a potential vehicle toward unlocking the potential of Africa and bringing its countries together for our mutual benefit.

The following are all really truisms in any netizens mind, however they are not generally accepted, so to hear this from Zuma is quite a thing:
  • Technology is shaping the future of the world, challenging geographical boundaries and revolutionising economic, social and political activity.

  • Information technology has the capacity to improve living standards for millions of people on the continent.

  • At the same time, it has the potential to reverse existing inequality and marginalisation. For Africa, information and communication technology is not simply about science.

  • Nor should it merely be viewed as another economic sector, like agriculture or mining.
Zuma is a populist - he has his fingers on the pulse of what the people want. In this speech, he has clearly been influenced by the younger set and is projecting a forward thinking South Africa as a guiding light for the continent. This really makes it clear that the people love technology and communicating. (E.g. the favourite feature of awareNet so far is the chat function.) This does represent a shift of power on the continent as hierarchies are replaced by networks. And markets. Control of the media is not as effective, when people are allowed to communicate p2p / f2f in a free manner.

Every metre of fibre laid, strengthens and extends the rope-ladder which is going to hoist the African people out of impoverishment.
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: March 20th 2010 06:08

OLPC XO Last in Comparative Survey at Rhodes University

This may be of moderate interest to some. Constance Sibanda, a honours student at Rhodes University's Computer Science Department published a comparative study on three netbooks.

The OLPC performed the worst of all of them. The author says because it was tested with older children. In the conclusion she makes the following comments:
"Participants found the OLPC XO the least intuitive for secondary school educational purposes. They felt that this netbook is better suited for small children. None of the participants were interested in buying this netbook and the teachers did not recommend the learners buy it. Arguably, this recommendation would extend to the South African Department of Education with regards to secondary school learners. Some difficulties expressed by users were that the cursor got “stuck” and participants found it difficult to familiarise themselves with the operating system interface. The first impression of the participants when they saw the OLPC was that it was a children’s toy and they were reluctant to use it."
Exactly this final comment is what allows the Kliptown Youth Project to send children home in the dangerous township of Kliptown / Soweto with their XOs every day. Children are not molested, because no one realizes the value of the tool they are carrying.

A further criticism not enunciated quite as clearly by the Ms Sibanda is that teachers in the schools generally endorse and prefer Windows on their hardware. They feel that this is the best option. Especially power users, the ones who might help with first level support at a school, are sceptical of Linux. Furher, many teachers have completed courses, which predominantly teach on Windows and MS Office basis. Teachers do not in general want to be challenged in the ICT space. They feel their productivity is assisted by staying on their known course. Viruses, costs and alternative methods do not seem to factor into their consciousness.

Anyone who knows the sugar interface, knows that it is revolutionary. As a Mac user, I am used to different ways of thinking and new productivity tools. The sugar interface is however a real challenge, and as such it often does not meet with the approval of the school directors. This observation, which is founded in my experience with about a dozen schools serving disadvantaged populations, is linked to the idea that many modern methodologies (like OBE -- Outcomes Based Education) can only thrive if there is a critical mass of knowledge already present in the population using the method. Otherwise they fail. Going into any situation, you have to play to the strengths of the group you are dealing with, before you challenge them. This is something that is difficult to do using boilerplate (i.e. templates, or prefabricated, mass production methods).

Can the promise of modern education, based on innovative insight, logical reasoning and freedom of thought, be realised in Africa?

(Read the entire thesis: http://www.cs.ru.ac.za/research/g09s2432/)
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: March 3rd 2010 07:52

A P2P Middleware Design for Rural Digital Access Nodes in Marginalised Rural Areas ...

... is the title of my masters thesis, which I will hand in for external examination at the end of the week.

Thanks to my family for putting up with my midnight writing sessions.

And thanks to my friends, Erika, Ford, Henry and Tanya for proof-reading the sucker.

And thanks to my readership for putting up with the silence... (I'll publish a copy here as soon as it's final.)

Things have been going along at the speed of light at eKhaya ICT in the meanwhile. In December, Thozamile Ngeju our community coordinator has been doing wonders with the two schools that were operational in that time: Benjamin Mahlasela and Nathaniel Nyaluza (both Secondary Schools). This is our first small forray into the Grahamstown township (impoverished peri-urban area), and we look forward to it moving along fantastically during 2010. All signals are on green for this year.

On the ESTIMA Software Factory front, we are hard at work. A large part of the technical input at the start comes from my thesis -- the primary software objective will be to create a distributed middleware for rural digital access centres. Doesn't that sound familiar. We have hired two programmers and I am late in writing an offer to the third. Oops. So I had better go and do that now.

But first a word about innovation possibilities: we had a fab meeting with the East London IDZ last week. Dr. Nkem-abonta has really internalised all the recommendations that issue from the COFISA foresight workshops (http://www.cofisa.org.za, look under documents), and so the Eastern Cape is looking to attract Knowledge Industries, Green Transport, etc. It sounds, that the IDZ is a little behind schedule. As are many things on the African Continent. Like BROADBAND. Still, if they manage to get a green car manufacturer there, at least we'll have a place to peddle our mobile software. I have been talking to the CEO of neofonie Mobile, and he's keen to expand down this way...
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: February 2nd 2010 09:02

Moving from SourceForge to GoogleCode

awareNet is currently moving from SourceForge to GoogleCode. The main reason is the speed of the site, but a further problem is the intricate nature of the SourceForge machinery. There are really very many options on all the features, most of which I can only think would be interesting in teams of around or more than 20 programmers.

GoogleCode on the other hand is faster to access, the svn doesn't time out all the time from South Africa and I am interested to see which of the SourceForge features I am going to miss...

By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: October 12th 2009 08:46

IBM Client for Smart Work for Africa

I have been trying to find out what the IBM and Canonical offering for netbooks is about, that is being trumpeted on blogs and news media around now. It sounds very much like a Google solution - office software apps available via a cloud computing infrastructure.

What strikes me about this is that noone currently has cloud computing facilities on the African continent at the moment. That means that the solution being offered is reliant on overseas Internet connectivity.

Well let's hope that African governments buy into the IBM solution - they will have to finally invest properly in their communications infrastructure (e.g. Swaziland - see previous blog about SATNAC) helping millions of people.

The Wall Street Journal said the following:
"If IBM keeps its part of the bargain and provides cloud-based applications at affordable prices then this service will revolutionize businesses in Africa," said Venansius Barya Baryamureeba, Dean of the Faculty of Computing and IT at Makerere University, Uganda, who has been briefed on IBM's plans. "
Maybe he knows more than I could find out.
By: Ron Wertlen [permalink]
Posted: September 27th 2009 08:17
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eKhaya ICT is an Eastern Cape based software company, specialising in quality solutions and software components of ICT4D.

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