Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier (Book Review)

With more of our lives increasingly taking place online, the issue of privacy, especially in regards to our personal data, has never been more important. Without even knowing it we broadcast a wide range of information about our locations, habits, interests, and beliefs just by carrying a smartphone in our pocket or using the web. This data isn’t lying fallow in digital fields though; it’s being collected, collated, and used to build detailed profiles so that companies such as Facebook, Google, and even our own governments can know more about us than ever before.

This isn’t a good thing.

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Bruce Schneier has been a specialist in the data security industry for many years, and in Data and Goliath he expertly outlines the way in which we are being monitored and analysed by a variety of interested parties. Unlike some other books that cover this subject, Schneier is careful not to invoke histrionics or sensationalism in order to sell his story, instead he calmly explains how tracking works and why it is used so widely.

From its origins in the cold-war, he charts the way that government agencies regularly spied on their enemies (not to mention each other), and how this eventually transformed into the digital surveillance culture that Edward Snowden so spectacularly revealed in 2013. Schneier actually handled some of the famous Snowden documents while working with the Guardian newspaper, and even interviewed the whistleblower after he sought asylum in Russia.

Data and Goliath is a fascinating exploration of this post-Snowden world we live in. It shows how the back-doors that technology companies were forced to implement for the NSA, have actually become weapons for other agencies and hackers to use. We’re taken through the murky world of international espionage, and shown how we have all become collateral damage in this digital arms race. Schneier also explains that even when we try to protect ourselves by leaving Facebook or Gmail, the fact that our friends and relatives still use them means we’re caught up in this global informational dragnet.

I’ll admit, at times the book leaves you with a profound sense of hopelessness, as fighting against powers so strong appears an exercise in futility. But all is not lost. In the final third of the story, Schneier outlines his manifesto for how governments, corporations, and individuals can change they way they act, thus restoring some kind of trust to the online world. Sadly this is also one of the slowest part of the book, as the governmental and corporate sections really feel more like a utopian call to arms than an actual solution. Data has become so valuable  that the prospect of them surrendering it for the greater good seems a distant and unrealistic possibility.

“…at times the book leaves you with a profound sense of hopelessness, as fighting against powers so strong appears an exercise in futility.”

Tips on how individuals can at least obfuscate the data we generate is useful. Schneier advocates software such as the Tor browser, HTTPS Everywhere, plus other helpful tools. He also has some ingenious ideas about throwing in random behaviour to mess with the algorithms that predict our patterns.

In the end you’re still left with the knowledge that big brother really is watching, and won’t be stopping anytime soon. But at least if you’re aware of the facts it could help you make better decision about how much you, at least willingly, share. It might not be a happy read in a lot of ways, but it is an important one.

Data and Goliath is published by W.W.Norton in the UK and USA.

 

 

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Netropolitan – Facebook without the peasants.

The Riot Club

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a private space online? One where you could meet with friends, share photographs, trivial and important news, vintage wine tips, and yacht parking secrets, all the while knowing that you were safe from the inane ramblings of the lower classes? Well, today is your lucky day.

Meet Netropolitan the new social network for, and I quote, people who have ‘more money than time’, and quite possibly sense.

For a miserly $6000 joining fee you can enjoy the exclusive surroundings of a web browser, while rubbing shoulders with others from your social standing. That’s of course if they can find a moment in their busy schedules. An additional $3000 is also required to polish the fonts and ensure that no interlopers make it past the outer courtyards. Figgis! Release the hounds!

Ok, I’m making fun. Rich people with exclusive websites does feel like a fairly easy point of derision…but, actually, there is some sense in this idea.

Of course my non-richness riles against any such creation, but for a while now I’ve wondered how much better Facebook would be if it offered a paid membership? For many things the social network behemoth is fine – keeping up with friends, being distracted by stupid questionnaires, solving world problems by signing an online petition, etc… –  but due to the fact that it’s free, Facebook has no reservations in buggering up the user experience in order to rake in some heavy cash. This is achieved through constant adverts or recommendations in your stream, which is already ruined by the never ending desire it has to show you stuff from two or three months ago.

If we paid, then maybe we could get the old, simpler Facebook back? You remember. The one where chronology was respected and the only threat to your sanity was Farmville. The question is what kind of price do you put on privacy and an ad free life? £5 a month? £15? Android apps often come in two versions, one with ads, and a paid version without, so the concept works in principle.

The real problem with this scenario is that we’re actually worth more to Facebook than our money. Advertisers will pay more than most of us would fork out, as our data is far more valuable to them. When we like things our friends post, it tells them our preferences. When we list things we want, or places we want to visit, more intelligent data gets added to the pile of who were are as individuals. Essentially we’re selling ourselves off, one click at a time.

You could try Twitter, Tumbler, Google+, or some young upstart, but they all cater to different markets, or have nobody on them. The thing is, Facebook built a bloody good service, and that’s why we’re there. So now, due to the critical mass of friends and family that make it their daily hangout, we’re kind of stuck. Facebook has the people, they don’t want our money, and we all spend lots of time on the site regardless of whatever insane user interface obstacle course they devise to test our resolve.

Well, that just sucks.

I feel the stirring of a revolution in my loins. That, or I need a more comfortable chair. No, revolution it is. So, what say you all? Shall we create a new utopia, free from the oppressive forces of billion dollar corporations? Where your life belongs to you, and you’re free to post as many cat pictures as you want without fear of it being attached to your permanent record. A holy sanctuary of free speech and expression. And no bloody invites to ever, ever, play stupid agricultural-based games that will slowly put you in the poor house.

Then come with me, my merry band of digital adventurers, as we forge a new frontier here on the Living with the Future social space. Sign up now….only £100!

Wait….no, it’s a bargain.

Seriously.

Bugger.

Hmmm, I wonder what’s on Facebook?

Are we wasting the internet?

Over the past few years we’ve seen incredible advances in our everyday tech.

Phones are now the supercomputers of a few years ago, tablets are replacing cumbersome PCs with lightweight, touch-friendly devices, and even our TVs are talking to the internet. Surely this is a golden age. Or is it?

Recently I’ve noticed a quiet trend towards people eschewing the power of their gadgets and instead reverting to a non-digital state. Some have instituted days when they turn off their phones or computers, thus escaping their time-sapping clutches. Others have gone off line completely, including Paul Miller a notable writer for high profile tech blog The Verge who went an entire year without using the internet.

It’s becoming cool to erase, or at least take a break, from your Facebook account. Twitter is often reduced disparagingly to a site where people just talk about their dining habits, and for the visual version you head to Instagram. Then of course there’s the worrying trend of governments spying on us, hackers trying to steal our identities, and the entertainment industries wanting access to our records so they can check whether we’ve downloaded any of their content illegally.

What is going on? How did we get here so quickly?

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For years I’ve been a passionate advocate for the internet. Its open nature empowers everyone to attempt things that up until now would have been impossible without the backing of rich patrons or corporate entities. Want to write a book and sell it worldwide? Pick your, mostly free, software and off you go. Want to shoot a movie? Grab a digital camera and, mostly inexpensive, editing software then head to Vimeo or Youtube. Want to start a business?  Form a resistance movement? Blog about parenting? The internet has you covered.

So why all the negativity?

Well, I have a theory. Something else not uncommon online.

You see if many of us were actually doing the things listed above then I think we’d be rosy cheeked at the splendour of the world wide web. But most of us don’t. Instead we do the normal stuff of life. Post on Facebook what TV show we’re watching, Tweet a shortcut to an article that confirms one of our beliefs, and yes, a picture of food on Instagram. In fact I’ve noticed that over time the internet has actually become smaller for me.

Government intervention again? No. Laziness.

You see rather than spread my wings and fly through the vast skies of information that could enrich my mind and challenge my adopted values, I instead regularly visit about twenty sites…and four of those are football related.

Is it just me, or is the internet wasted on us?

At our fingers we have the collected knowledge of the world – history, philosophy, theology, science –  and yet the temptation to check whether Reese Witherspoon looks bad when she doesn’t wear makeup is a bigger draw.

Maybe the problem with the internet isn’t the technology. Maybe it’s us.

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Sure there are plenty of studies that state our use of social media makes us lonely (viewing someone’s highlight reel can be intimidating), reading short articles online reduces our ability to concentrate, and that consuming content that agrees intellectually with us further strengthens these mindsets. There’s probably some significant truth in these findings too, but they feel too isolated in their focus to encompass the simple fact that if we fired up our passions and utilised the magnificent tools we have before us…then the story could be different.

In the end we can blame the online world for many things, just as we can the physical one, but the constant thread between the two is that they are populated by people. Easily distracted, possibly idle, very often seated, people like me and maybe you. The real quest that lies ahead is whether we can avoid the siren’s call of one more amusing cat video and actually use this wondrous platform to get on with something amazing.

A friend of mine has a signature at the end of her emails which reads along the lines of ‘What would you attempt if you knew you couldn’t fail?’ At first I thought it was a bit simplistic, but the idea has caught hold. It’s an evocation to dream a bit bigger. So I ask you the same question, albeit with an addendum, in the hope that maybe we can inspire each other to greater things.

‘What would you attempt if knew you wouldn’t fail? And even if you did fail, wouldn’t it be worth the adventure anyway?’

Let me know in the comments below…

Living the Google Life – Day 10 : The Nexus 4

It’s been a little over a week now since I swapped all of my Apple gear for the current Google alternatives. On the whole it’s been a fascinating experiment as I’m learning how I actually use devices and services.

The Nexus 10, Samsung’s iPad rival, has been a challenge, partly due to the wider, shorter construction which feels less comfortable to use, but mainly the lack of tablet optimised apps that Android currently offers. This might not be the whole story though as I’ve found myself using the Nexus 4 for many of the jobs that a tablet was previously employed. Could it be that having a bigger screen on my phone means that I don’t need a tablet as much as before? Curious…

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The first time I held the Nexus 4 in my hand I thought…Crikey! This is a big phone. Coming from the diminutive lines of the iPhone 4S, the N4 seemed like a canoe in comparison. Holding it up to my face felt odd, silly even, and not being able to accomplish many common tasks with one hand took some getting used to. I’ll have to admit that throughout the first week I was seriously doubtful of the size and shape of the phone.

Then an odd thing happened.

On Monday morning, while going about my normal blog reading, podcast listening, article researching routine I realised  that the N4 had suddenly become normal. No decision to stoically endure the vaste expanse of gorilla glass had taken place, my hands hadn’t been charmed by the songs from WhooVille and grown two sizes that day, instead I’d simply gotten used to it. Even more mysterious still, returning to my iPhone quickly revealed that the up till now perfect screen looked…well, cramped. What kind of sorcery is this?

Part of the mental adjustment was not being an idiot on purpose. You see as a creature of habit I tend to keep all my app icons in the same locations when moving between handsets. This invariably means that Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and such things are on the left side of the screen so that I can, being left handed, access them all with my thumb. Now the Nexus 4 has its power button on the right hand side, so without thinking I started holding it in my right hand (so I could actually reach the button), and then found that tapping any of my daily icons was quite difficult. The problem initially appeared that the screen was just too big, but after realising what I was doing I moved the icons and, of course, suddenly I could navigate the phone with one hand again. I wonder how many other daft things I’m doing in life that I could fix with a little thinking?

The stock Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean OS runs very smoothly on the device and I have to say that in the week and a half that I’ve been using the Nexus 4 there hasn’t been a single error message or app that stopped responding. A nice change from the older iterations I used before. All of the apps I wanted where in the store, with the sad exception of the excellent Downcast podcasting app, which I use everyday on my iOS devices. I did try a few others but none of them really felt as friendly as Downcast, and in the end I returned to my previous app of choice Podkicker, which does the job well and is easy to use.

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Otherwise it was pretty much business as usual in smartphone land. My emails flowing gracefully into the Gmail app – which it should be noted looks and works a lot better here than it does on my iPhone. Calendars synched without issue, phone calls where loud, clear, and didn’t drop, while texting and browsing were transformed thanks to the swype style functions that Android offers on its keyboards. On my iPhone I have to type all the words in a traditional fashion letter by letter. Its fine because the iPhone keyboard is very accurate.  On Android I can quickly drag my finger over the various letters and the phone will decipher my scribblings into words, with impressive accuracy. It’s great! Writing long emails is now a fun game as I see how fast I can move my finger. This is undoubtedly one of the things I will miss most when I return to iOS.

Another impressive feature is the amount of services I can send files to. On iOS it tends to be a limited set of apps that I can either choose files from or send them to. Dropbox if you’re lucky, Camera Roll, Gallery, and iCloud are the regular offerings. Android opens this up much wider with Skydrive, Google Drive, Amazon, Dropbox, Bluetooth and several other often appearing in the options. I like this freer attitude to file access and still find Apple’s implementation rather crude and proprietary.

Even the camera on the Nexus 4 is good. I had heard rumours that it wasn’t up to much, but in use I haven’t seen this at all. Whereas it’s not quite as easy to use as the iPhone (size again), the result I achieved were the equal of its Apple counterpart, which was something that genuinely surprised me. In a good way.

An impressive camera makes the Nexus 4 a complete package.
An impressive camera makes the Nexus 4 a complete package.

After my initial concerns I have to admit that the Nexus 4 has gotten under my skin. Where once it was enormous, now it’s a handy screen size. The apps I want are pretty much all there, and the camera would make a transition from the excellent 4S feel like you weren’t losing out in any way. When you then consider the cost of buying a Nexus 4  –£279 in the Google Play store for the 16GB model off-contract model – it really does become a hugely compelling device. I can’t think of a better value-for-money phone out there that is anywhere near as good as this one.

Will I be switching? I don’t know…it’s still a big decision, but one that the Nexus 4 makes a lot less frightening.

Review – Living With the HTC 8X

Windows Phone 8 has been having a hard time cracking the stranglehold that iOS and Android have on customers at the moment. The Nokia Lumia phones have caught the eye with their bright colours and pretty, big icons, but the fact that they weigh the same as a VW Beetle probably hasn’t aided their adoption. HTC though have a much slimmer offering for those who fancy their digital bread buttered Windows side up.

The 8X is the champion set to battle it out among the Finnish heavyweights and from the outset you can see that the design ethos is very different. Whereas the Lumias feel sturdy and fat in the hand, the 8X is light, very thin, and far more of an elegant approach. It isn’t all smiles though as the flush buttons can be tricky to find and holding the unit in your hands sometimes feels a little uncomfortable due to the subtly sharp edges of the slight design.

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The software itself is probably the area that will decide whether you like the phone or not. Windows 8 Phone is very pretty, and the fonts used in the apps are beautiful, but after a while the novelty wears off and you realise that it just seem to take more user selections to get things done than feels necessary. Many of the built in apps are fine for light use and the range is slowly growing to include more mainstream favourites, but when compared to Android or iOS the functionality seems restricted by the absence of high quality applications. The phone does integrate well with other Microsoft software, and the Skydrive app is as useful as ever for storing and sharing files online. A continuing area of concern though is Microsoft’s inability to get developers interested in its mobile platform. In these days of app centric customers this could be damaging in the long run to the success of the OS. One advantage that Windows 8 phone offers is that all the handsets I’ve used that run it are fast and smooth due to the singular implementation of the software – something that isn’t generally true on Android. At the moment Windows Phone 8 does feel like the poor cousin of the other main mobile platforms, but Microsoft is an immense company and has far too much artillery to be counted out easily.

Otherwise the 8X offers a reasonable camera, all day battery life, and a rather fetching purple livery. Performance is snappy and the 8X does catch the occasional eye when you’re out and about due to its unique appearance. With Windows Phone 8 not yet drawing the crowds it also means that you can pick one of these up rather cheaply (we’ve seen them go for £150 barely used through online retailers like http://www.smartfonestore.com).  As long as you’re happy with the currently limited nature of the platform, then the HTC 8X is a smartphone that’s dependable, cool, and will run Facebook, Twitter, while gathering your emails without fuss. Pretty much what most people need, without the big bills to match.

Review – Living with the Samsung Galaxy Camera

There was a time when any budding, amateur photographer was required to drag around a copious amount of weighty kit in order to capture that one moment of magic.

But advances in smartphone technology have had a quite dramatic effect on how most of us take photographs. As the old adage goes, the best camera is the one you have with you, and such is the symbiotic relationship we have with our mobile devices that we’re now never more than an arms length away from our phones at any time.  Plus the cameras on the higher end models are about as good as most people will ever need, so does this spell the end for compact cameras?

Well, Samsung doesn’t think so.

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The Galaxy Camera is a curious beast that they’ve brought to the table, with features that make it more akin to our precious phones than a classic camera. On the front you’ll find a nice big lens that can zoom out to 21x magnification (try that on your iPhone), there are also traditional controls for the zoom, a shutter button, and even a neat pop-up flash for those darker moments.  Flipping the unit around shows where the phone influence comes in. A 4.8″ touchscreen covers the entire back, and switching the camera on reveals a fully functional version on Android 4.1 running inside. This means that you can use the camera as you would a smartphone (albeit without making calls). Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, and all the other normal candidates can be installed, all controlled via the large touchscreen which is clear and responsive. So now, in theory, you can take photos with your snazzy big camera and still post them up on Instagram or back them up to Dropbox, without the need for plugging the device into your computer. Truly these are the days of wonder.

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Well, they would be if the camera in question was really good. But sadly the Samsung Galaxy camera is only around average in the photo stakes. This is disappointing as I like the idea. Having a bigger lens, wider frame of view, and that all important zoom offers up plenty of opportunities for more impressive compositions than the standard smartphone fare. Indeed, after only a few minutes with the Galaxy Camera you realise how useful a superzoom is for capturing more candid, natural shots of people rather than the posed efforts phones often produce. The connectivity is also a fantastic feature as you can shoot away, upload your images, and then be clear to carry on for more without the hassle of clearing SD cards.

The problem is that there are quite a few compromises to carrying a device like this, and the results need to make them acceptable. First off it’s a bit heavy and certainly won’t be slipping into the pocket of your jeans anytime soon. The unit’s bulky design also makes using the screen for anything other than a quick selection of modes somewhat cumbersome. Moving between the apps themselves can also be frustratingly slow, which is something you never really think of with a camera where you just want to pick up and shoot. No viewfinder is a shame, especially when shooting outside in bright sunlight, although it must be said that the screen is still quite viewable so Samsung have done well there.  In the end though the images captured with the Galaxy just didn’t make all the disadvantages worth contending with. Subjects were often soft or noisy, the light balance could be a little off at times, and colours weren’t always accurate. Don’t get me wrong, the camera is decent, and there is a full manual mode with which you could take greater control of these issues, but it doesn’t feel much better than my iPhone 4S, or even my trusty old Sony W5 digital compact.

Here’s a few examples shots from the Galaxy Camera –

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2013-06-25 09.53.48 20130614_184809As you can see the Galaxy Camera is a good device that can capture some interesting images, but when you factor in the price of around £400 then it becomes hard to recommend. At the moment is feels very much like a first generation device. The concept I’m a big fan of, and given time and some hardware upgrades this type of camera could well become an incredibly attractive proposition. It’s early days though and the folks at Samsung have got a lot of work to do. I hope they’re up for it.

 

 

 

Living with Google – Day 3 : Getting to grips with the Nexus 10

I feel like I’m getting settled in now. The iPad and iPhone have been banished and the Nexus replacements are holding up well. In fact that term – holding – is a key part of my thinking at the moment.

When Steve Jobs announced the iPad he did so with the aid of a comfy chair. He sat, fondling his new magical device while telling the world how good it felt to hold and touch. Although this might seem like the pitch of a world class salesman (which it undoubtedly was) there’s no arguing with the truth that was being conveyed. The iPad is far better to hold than a laptop. No great surprises there. The thing is that after three years of using one I’ve grown very accustomed to that particular squarish shape, and am struggling a little to adjust to the sleeker design of the Nexus 10.

At first glance they’re not so different, both are slim, light, pieces of expansive glass with a black border around their edges. Stand them side by side and you’ll notice that the Nexus 10 is wider (thanks to its 16:10 aspect ratio) and a little shorter than it’s fruity alternative. This makes watching movies on it a pleasant experience, aided by a lovely HD screen and two forward facing speakers. The bass frequencies can be a little lacking, which is not unusual on slim tablets, but the volume is respectable and coming straight at you – always a bonus.

One of my favourite uses for a tablet is reading news and RSS feeds on the Pulse app. Thankfully Pulse is available on iOS and Android so swapping over is a breeze. Within a few minutes of visiting the Play store I had all my feeds synced and was away. The  layout is pretty much identical and meant that my transition from one device to another felt easy and with a minimum of fuss. Magazines aren’t quite so easy. On iOS I use Readr, which allows me to read lots of different magazines for a set price of £5.99 per month, saving me quite a bit of money. So far I haven’t found an equivalent on Android (if you know of one please let me know) and it’s also thrown up a small problem.

On my iPad I will often read magazines in portrait mode as I find it the best way to navigate around pages when zooming in and out. Holding the Nexus 10 in portrait mode just feels…weird. The taller, thinner nature is definitely designed to be used in landscape orientation, which is fine for video but not so great for magazines or comics. Of course this might not be an issue for you, but as I make my living writing for publications I also like to access them on my tablet. Amazon’s Kindle app works just great though.

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The rubber backing on the Nexus 10 is very comfortable. I wish the iPad had something similar so it didn’t keep trying to leap out of your hands and hurl itself to the ground. Surprisingly though the thinness of the device still makes it hard to lean it against something without a bit of slippage. In the hand though I’m a big fan of the softer, warmer textures under my fingers.

One criticism often levelled at Android is the lack of tablet specific apps that are designed for it. So far this is certainly the case as many of the normal apps I use – Facebook, Twitter, Audible and others – all looking stretched across the wide screen rather than tailored to the environment. It was noticeable on the Nexus 7, but on the 10 it really starts to standout. This is something that I shall have to investigate further.

It’s early days with the Nexus 10, and using something else for the jobs that my iPad has done pretty much without exception for a few years now just shows how used to a certain weight and balance I have become. I’m sure that as the days roll by I will adjust to this new design, but it does feel alien at the moment. Next up…the Nexus 4.

 

 

 

For we are many…

I love Twitter.

Since those first nervous posts a few years ago I’ve gone on to be something of an addict. In that time I’ve made friends whom I now regard as significant in my life although we may only have met in person on a couple of occasions – some never at all. I’ve witnessed marriage proposals, several emerging author friends sign major book deals, Stephen Fry stuck in a lift, breaking stories reported before news crews could get there, and tragically a friend returning home to find his wife had passed away. Whoever thought that so much could be said in 140 characters?

It occurred to me this morning how subtly the micro-blogging service has actually infiltrated and altered modern society. Over a hearty (attacky) breakfast with a friend we discussed the appointment of the latest manager of the England football team. Many in the press had expected another chap to get the job and when he didn’t there was an outcry that the people’s choice had been overlooked. Twitter on the other hand gave the people the chance to represent themselves and many were quite happy with the new man. Whether that will remain the case once the team starts playing is another question entirely. What it brought out though was how media outlets have spoken on behalf of ‘the people’ for years, mostly without bothering to actually talk to any of them. Social media now allows us to call them on that, and it’s going to be interesting to see how they adapt to the new journalistic landscape.

It’s not just the news that is under pressure from the masses. Reviewers need to up their game too. Gizmodo ran a story this morning about how Amazon customer reviews appear more accurate than professional ones. It reported that a study conducted at Harvard found that, when taken as a whole, the scores given by customers in their reviews proved as reliable as those found in the major magazines and newspapers, but with customers being more lenient on new authors and less dazzled by award winners. Having worked in bookshops I know that publishers are very keen for prominence to be given to their established stars even when their work isn’t as good as it could be. Having also been part of a movement that supported new emerging talent I’ve also been party to talking up writers who are still young in their craft. For one I think encouraging new voices is preferable to cosseting older ones and it appears that I’m not alone. Good to know.

I think we stand at the crossroads now in terms of how we define the entertainment and arts that we want to experience. With more choice comes more noise, making the curated mass market a simpler place to navigate. But if we want more than demographically decided content then we need to work a bit harder to find it. Thankfully there are many voices that will help us along the way, most of which are trustworthy….

How has social media affected you? Let me know in the comments below.