Saturday, February 18, 2006

The changing face of information

Retail Partnership thinks strategic

Tuesday last, the city centre retail partnership board met for the first time since the transfer of city centre management activities to City Council. Not a lot was said about what the team had been through - everyone present knew the score and took it in their stride, since it had been 'business as usual' despite the boardroom drama. The meeting returned to reflect on key issues for the retail partnership to engage in actively, a process begun 18 months ago.
Top of the list is the St David's centre phase two development - how to keep the city running successfully during the next three years of daily building-site type disruptions? Tied in with this is the question of public transport and parking, finding new ways to get shoppers in, as building activity deters them from trying. The city's Park and Ride scheme has grown considerably in popularity over the past few years, but the overall proportion of scheme users is only a fifth of those driving into town. Problems of access to the city by car, and traffic congestion due to poor infrastructure are already shown to be strangling the growth of city's competitiveness. Advocacy for improving city access is central to its traders' interests. Directly connected with this is marketing the city, as a desirable place for shopping, business and leisure.
Louise Prynne, one of the city's chief marketing officers was at the meeting to promote the coming year's city sponsored events. She mentioned in passing that building a City Centre Retail Partnership website was now under consideration. This was an idea I had put to Paul the city centre manager, just before the big crisis struck. Creating an service to promote the commercial life of city centre, and inform the public of access problems, sudden crises and accidents, special arrangements for big events, major sales promotions and so on, news of redevelopment progress, all this independent of mainstream media, and more quickly up to date, if the technology was right, would go a long way towards addressing the strategic aims articulated. When I expressed my delight that City admin. was thinking in these terms, Paul graciously inferred that my enthusiasm for the idea was infectious.

Broadening information horizons
Today, I met with my new co-worker Ian and his brother Glyn, who works on using mobile phone messaging technology as a marketing device, for an informal discussion, stimulated by Ian and Glyn talking about the information challenges coming at us fast over the event horizon.
I'm not big on everyday mobile phone uses other than urgent texts and calls, so it wouldn't occur to me to invest in using this medium as an information service, though evidently lots of people are prepared to pay for information they need delivered to them, to save them finding it out.
When Glyn explained what's now possible I began to see that a Retail Partnership website is but the tip of an information iceberg. Ten times as many people use mobile phones as use computers. Mobile phones can now be used to access the internet. All sorts of personalised services can be designed around the needs of mobile phone users. e.g. weather for outdoor sports fans, localised traffic conditions for delivery drivers, special offers for shoppers. With sat-nav capabilties in 'phones, such information services could be triggered by proximity to the place where the information is relevant. Wow! This isn't Star Trek fantasy, but stuff already possible. Glyn is an enthusiastic advocate, and doesn't talk mumbo-jumbo. So there are now interesting possibilities I didn't know existed on Tuesday last, for an integrated information service embracing the Web, telephones, public video access points all according to the identified needs of users.
Yes, there are possibilities for abusive exploitation, but what strikes me is that all new information systems rely primarily on trust and co-operation. Security precautions are necessary to avoid abuse, but they are secondary. Desire to communicate, to work together for mutual benefit is fundamental. Things that compromise or exploit that desire unjustly are merely parasitic - nothing that cannot be managed by healthy bodies.

Living with the Blogosphere

I feel I am learning new things about the 'information society', both from professional and pastoral encounters and from my rather geeky reading of newsfeeds and blogs. One day, one day I'll settle down and try to do some proper theological and spiritual reflection on all this.
Despite all the horrible things going on in the world the number of people working together and working honestly and hard for the common good far outweighs the number of villains and parasites, and just possibly more so than at any other time in history.
We have the means to sound out each other around the world and come to a common mind on profound and significant issues, before traditional journos and politicians wake up. Both classes of power-mongers are finding that they need to look at the blogs that concern their concerns before opening their mouths or putting pen to paper. Yes, it all happens very fast, too fast for proper reflection and consideration, far too often. It's a new challenge to our spiritual maturity, not to be rushed early into judgement, to debate openly, fearlessly. As Bill Thompson said in a recent article on the BEEB's website, ( blogging is changing the boundaries between the public and the private.
He states that when things are said in cyberspace the speaker is accountable not just to their desired audience, but potentially to the whole world. All desires are known, no secrets are hidden, for better or worse in the so-called 'blogosphere'. Fair enough. But in this new manifestation of the 'global village' there is nothing remotely like being silent in public, where one's silence is the statement. I have in mind a picture of Jesus confronted with the woman taken in adultery and her accusers doodling in the sand and saying nothing while the stone throwers lose their murderous zeal.
It is comment and dialogue that goes a long way towards debate that empowers people. Would that church folk would take this possiblility more seriously, and not fear it, since we are supposed to believe Jesus' words "The truth will set you free."
Yes these are very important influential developments in human communication, but they are not all. There are still things better left unsaid, moments when silence is the appropriate response. In the real world, this is easily understood. For years, I did telephone counselling, and a lot of the work done between client and listener was done in the silences which added meaning to what was said. Unadorned text, even text with 'emoticons' (awful word with trivial content), can hardly achieve what the voice can.
But then, we're not far off from an abundance of computing power that feely offers an alternative - write or speak your blog, see or hear it instantly, so that anyone can listen or re-read and evaluate your thought as easily as you expressed it, as if they were in the same room as you irrespective of the displacement of time. Almost as if they were inside your head ....
That's the point at which the inner will, spiritual disicipline, discernment, whatever you call it, is vital to enable us to retain our integrity. OK, we can run away and hide in a corner, and sometimes that's just what we need to do, but we can't keep on running and hiding, or we become slaves to our fear. It's truth, explored and discovered in the revelation that comes through dialogue that sets us free.

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