Information Without Frontiers

Twenty-five years and a fortnight ago, Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal for what would eventually become the World Wide Web. In his words on its silver anniversary: “By design, the Web is universal, royalty-free, open and decentralised.” Or, as he tweeted from the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony…

This is for everyone #london2012 #oneweb #openingceremony @webfoundation @w3c — Tim Berners-Lee (@timberners_lee) July 27, 2012

Seemingly no frontiers, then. And yet there are frontiers, both because two-thirds of the planet can’t access the web, and because those that are connected are at risk of being overwhelmed by the amount of information and of having their personal data compromised.

When you are overwhelmed with information, how do you choose what to read, and how do you know what to trust? A friend told me that people are going back to print media because it is bounded, but I couldn’t find a link on Google to a corroborating article, so I don’t know whether the story is true.

Information security is a key issue for any organisation venturing onto the internet and the web. It’s about the confidentiality (think credit card numbers, NHS records); integrity (the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth); availability (24×7); authenticity (does what it says on the tin); and non-repudiation (message received and understood) of information. Confidentiality for one implies the need for a whole lot of frontiers. Nor do I particularly want the government or any private company to be collecting information about me online (shout out to GCHQ and the NSA if you’re reading this!) The question of the balance between privacy and national security is going to be a thorny one for quite some time.

Another frontier that I think needs to exist and be improved upon is age-related content. TEDxExeter 2012 speaker Andy Robertson is the go-to-guy for discussion on video game ratings, which aim to protect children from inappropriate games, and recommendations for family-friendly games. It’s a thorny one for parents too, balancing their children’s privacy and security.

Then there are the frontiers that do exist but maybe should not. The lack of transparency in company ownership and tax affairs; the hording and reselling by government of data whose collection was funded by the tax-payer; the sky-high prices of scientific journals containing research which, yes, was most likely funded by the tax-payer.

And the wibbly-wobbly frontier that I haven’t quite yet sorted in my head: is Google making us stupid?



Those of you who are avid consumers of all things TED will know that the main TED conference took place last week. One of the many outstanding talks was given by Charmian Gooch, the recipient of the 2014 TED Prize.

Gooch founded the organisation Global Witness in 1993 with two friends, one of whom happens to be our TEDxExeter 2014 speaker Patrick Alley. Global Witness seeks to change the system by exposing the economic networks behind conflict, corruption and environmental destruction, campaigning in particular on: secrecy in oil, gas and mining deals; the role of the financial sector fuelling corruption; living within our planet’s thresholds; and conflict and fragile states.

Gooch has now set her sights on anonymous companies generally. As the blurb for her TED Prize talk says: “Anonymous companies protect corrupt individuals – from notorious drug cartel leaders to nefarious arms dealers – behind a shroud of mystery that makes it almost impossible to find and hold them responsible.”

So Gooch’s TED Prize wish is…

“for us to know who owns and controls companies, so that they can no longer be used anonymously against the public good. Let’s ignite world opinion, change the law, and together launch a new era of openness in business.”

The thing about a TED Prize wish is that it can’t be achieved by the wisher. It can only be granted by a myriad of fairy godmothers and genies working together. But if wand-waving isn’t your thing, a full list of ways to get involved can be found at The two best ways at this stage (after watching the talk, of course) are to share The Grin animation and to like the Facebook page, which will eventually have information regarding specific petitions. There’s also an infographic that explains the issue in detail, for sharing, and the hashtag is #AnonymousCompanies. Izzy wizzy, let’s get busy!

Research Without Frontiers

I have always been a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, and have so far definitely had a portfolio career, what with: energy-environment-economy consultancy; research into site-specific weather forecasting; research into the impact of weather on health, and service development; business analysis and strategy; climate research contract and project management; energy efficiency and renewables consultancy; website development; writing; and speaking.

Looking back, I can see that it has been bound together by the strong threads of sustainability and analysis, and by a desire to work across frontiers… to mix things up to see how they interact and what emerges that might be interesting. It hasn’t always been comfortable, as it has occasionally involved treading on experts’ toes, and usually knowing much less than everyone else. The greatest joy is in talking to experts who are already open to other disciplines and seeking genuine applications for their work.

To undertake in-depth research, or to achieve mastery, requires an intense focus of attention and effort and an equally intense avoidance of digression. Once upon a time, it was possible to be a polymath – an expert painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer… although perhaps not everyone was Leonardo da Vinci. Nowadays, as knowledge has advanced so far and become so specialised, polymaths are becoming rarer; to be a jack-of-all-trades is to be a master of none. Boundaries are required.

Boundaries can also inspire creativity. Think of the astonishing poetry that has emerged from the strict form of the sonnet or the haiku; or how the limited duration has generated some wonderful TEDTalks. But boundaries should be pushed too. We cannot say that we know all that there is to know about the nature of the universe or human consciousness. The frontiers of knowledge must continue to be breached continuously, and researchers open to the unexpected. Think of how Einstein threw Newtonian mechanics up in the air, or Fleming’s accidental discovery of penicillin.

Then there are the frontiers between disciplines, whether different branches of science or between the sciences and humanities. My favourite scientific articles tend to be about cross-over subjects such as weather in art or quantum biology or the history of health statistics, and I love compound-ology words like dendrochronology-palaeoecology and astroseismology. Sometimes, just sometimes, these interdisciplinary sparks can ignite real hope. I think my favouritest ever online talk has to be Tim Birkhead’s amazing Do Lecture (sorry TED!), in which he describes how one seemingly frivolous study of birdsong changed the direction of neurobiology and held out the promise of a cure for Alzheimers. Now that’s a frontier worth breaching.

Nature Without Frontiers

In my post about People Without Frontiers, I quoted from Peter Owen-Jones’ talk last year: that garden birds have more freedom than human beings, who are trapped within country borders. But do the birds really have freedom? Woe betide the robin that trespasses on its neighbour’s territory, or the swallow that deviates from its migration path! The sheep that appear to be free to roam across the whole of Dartmoor probably won’t; they have the lear, the knowledge of the boundaries of their safe grazing area, which is learnt within the flock. The slaughter of entire flocks with foot and mouth also meant the loss of the lear, and problems with safety of brought-in replacements.

Also last year, Stewart Wallis reminded us of the reality of environmental limits. The impossible hamster that continues to grow at the rate of doubling its size Every week would weigh 9 billion tonnes after a year. Population ecology studies population growth, food supply, niches and competition. Populations that boom beyond their niche and their food supply will experience competition and bust. Humans are as subject to population ecology as the rest of nature, and as subject to the ramifications of exponential growth population and consumption per capita on one planet. The reality of physical frontiers.

The atmosphere, on the other hand, is relatively without frontiers, where we might wish for some. Sprayed pesticides do not respect field boundaries, or recognise what might be a pest and what is a harmless or beneficial insect, or limit their effects to one level of the food chain. And of course, pollutants do not respect national boundaries. The wind blows where it wills, mixing the carbon dioxide emissions of the rich and visiting the impacts of climate change on the poor, and sometimes dispersing volcanic ash clouds and visiting the impacts on the rich.

If I might make a plug, slightly closer to home… there is concern over the new Exeter incinerator, due to start operation this summer. It is of course located on the side of town that the prevailing winds come from. So there is a small craftivist campaign called Particulart which recognises that the incinerator is a foregone conclusion, but is trying to make sure that it will be operated properly. It is looking for people to knit molecules! 

People Without Frontiers

Every week, it seems, there is some Daily Mail and UKIP-fuelled scare over the number of immigrants streaming into Britain, taking all our jobs and exploiting the NHS. (Hey… we need the doctors!) But I’m not in this post going to debate the merits of the Schengen Agreement, analyse immigration and emigration data, point out the very real needs of asylum seekers and climate/conflict refugees, pontificate over integration and ghetto-isation, or worry over contributions to society and the skills lost to the originating country.

Instead I am reminded of people who seemed or seem determined to ignore the notion of borders and frontiers: of Patrick Leigh Fermor walking through Europe in 1933-35, of mediaeval pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem and modern pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela, Lourdes and Medjugorje, of wandering Celtic saints and mendicant Franciscan friars, of the inspirational Winter Pilgrim and Peace Pilgrim, and of two TEDxExeter talks.

In 2012, Satish Kumar spoke of his peace pilgrimage. From my live summary of his talk: “We have been too focused on our own narrow identities and not enough on society. If Satish had walked on his peace pilgrimage as an Indian, he would have met a Pakistani. If he had walked as a socialist, he would have met a capitalist. But he walked without labels as a human being, and met other human beings. We need diversity, otherwise we will have no unity. But we need to avoid divisions – celebrate our diversity. Tourists always complain – laughter! Pilgrims celebrate. No more living as me me me me, my house, my job, my ego. Let’s be our true selves, and live on the earth as pilgrims. Earth is and you are, therefore I am. We are members of one earth community. That is society, and we are all members.”

Last year, Peter Owen-Jones said, again from my live summary: “How would it be if we were to leave our children no more militarised industrialised complexes that we know as countries? What if we were to acknowledge a basic human right of free movement? Song thrushes and robins have more freedom than we do. Militarised industrialised complexes of countries are not fit for purpose any more. We need to imagine a world without them.”

Imagine a world without countries, borders or frontiers. The trouble is, I then imagine a world which has few means of combating people trafficking or drug running. And this photo of our planet reminds me that the world itself is a frontier.

The frontier mentality says that there will always be new and unexplored territory. When we have used up the resources of our current piece of land, we can load up our wagons and push on west over the next mountain range. It’s the sort of mentality that will dry out the Ogallala aquifer in the name of the free market, or destroy vast areas of boreal forest and miles of water courses to feed our craving for oil. But we have already reached the Pacific; there are no more mountain ranges on the western horizon. In imagination, space is the final frontier, but in reality we are boldly going to have to live within our resources for some years yet.

I’m following my nose in writing a few posts exploring this year’s theme of “Ideas Without Frontiers”. My conclusions so far?

  • We have set frontiers where there should be none, for example around equitable distribution of wealth, income and opportunity.
  • We have not set frontiers where they should be set, for example around one planet living.
  • Physical frontiers are a reality of life beyond our control.

… but even if our lives are physically restricted, whether or not by choice, it does not mean that ideas and imagination are bounded. Nelson Mandela served over 27 years in prison, but his mind was free. Monks and nuns live in enclosure, but the purpose is to free their souls from distraction. Jean-Dominique Bauby was locked in his body, but released a butterfly that has touched millions.

Money Without Frontiers

Klemens von Metternich, who lived through French Revolutions and Napoleonic Wars and was Foreign Minister of the Austrian Empire from 1809 to 1848, once opined: “When Paris sneezes, Europe catches cold.”

By early 2008, the BBC were utilising an “old economic saying” in their analysis of the prospects for the US and global economies – “When the US sneezes, the world catches a cold” – a saying which was pretty much spot on, and goes to show that the potential for adaptation of a juicy apophthegm is without frontiers almost as much as money and debt are in today’s global economy.

Every day, trillions of dollars flow through the stock markets trading in foreign exchange. China and Japan each hold over $1 trillion of the US national debt. The EU is the largest economy and the largest trading block in the world, its trade with the rest of the world worth $5 trillion per year. So it’s not just the respiratory health of the US we need to monitor. Europe nearly caught swine flu when the PIIGS’ economies hiccoughed, and remember the SE Asian financial crisis in 1997, which raised fears of a worldwide economic pneumonia?

China may not be about to call in its debts – it still needs the US to be a healthy economic market for its exports – but it may now be sickening for something. Its fevered growth has been fuelled by trillions of dollars of debt and government subsidies, and there’s a risk that what goes up may mean going down with a bug. We can only hope it triggers a mild case of ‘Sinositis’ at the worst, rather than a full-blown SARS epidemic.

Interconnection and interdependence are good. But I think it’s time to hold our collective heads over a bowl of steaming hot water, and take some deep breaths to clear our minds and come to our senses.

Another consequence of money without frontiers is of course tax avoidance. It doesn’t just affect the UK, although the actions of Google, Amazon, Starbucks and the like are nefarious enough.

In 2009, Christian Aid estimated that poor countries lose $160 billion each year to corporate tax dodging. Oxfam estimates another $156 billion of lost tax revenue from individuals, enough to provide a minimum income of £1.25 per day (compare that with the cost of a cup of Starbucks’ finest) and end extreme poverty at least twice over. This is why Oxfam and Christian Aid were two of the 208 member organisations of the IF Campaign, which helped make tax a key issue at the G8 summit in County Fermanagh in 2013.

Because actually money does have one big frontier: the rich act to protect their interests, and leave the poor without a bean. So if you have just woken up to smell the coffee, here’s an idea: take a look at the following organisations and campaigns, or hit your favoured search engine, and have a think about what you can do for tax justice and equality.