Monthly Archives: March 2011


People are frightened of radiation. It conjures up fears of cancer and noone wants that. But most people have a very poor grasp of relative risk, and in any case are badly informed. The panic in Japan over the leaks there is partially justified of course, but it is still an order of magnitude more panicky than the risks deserve (for most people, not workers at the plant). And outside of Japan, any attempt at looking at the bigger picture seems to have been abandoned. To believe everyday media, nuclear is terrible and should never again be used anywhere ever under any circumstances. But the reality isn’t so bad.

Since it was first used, nuclear power has only killed a few thousand people, compared to millions killed by coal power and oil power and hundreds of thousands by hydro. In terms of deaths per gigawatt hour, (or years of life)  it is the safest energy source by a good margin. But radiation has been handled in media in such a way that people are now terrified of it far more then is really deserved. But politics has always been about perception, never reality. So now nuclear power is threatened even though it is still the safest and most environmentally friendly way of producing energy for the time being. The safety bar has been raised so far for it that it is too expensive to make, so other sources compare in the marketplace much better than they really ought.

This is bad news for the environment. If man is causing some of the climate change, and if it is CO2 related (as undoubtedly we are and some of it is, the main disagreement out there is on degree and mechanisms), then it will help to avoid generating any more CO2 than is necessary. Nuclear is a good option in that case. All the renewables have their own problems. Wind causes problems for birds, whales, humans and lots of other creatures and also disrupts weather patterns if scaled up. Historically, I have personally been in favour of solar photovoltaics, but solar panels absorbs more sunlight so they add to the overall albedo and cause warming directly as well as generating electricity. Estuary power causes obvious major ecosystem changes. Hydro-electric dams have often burst and killed lots of people. Bio-fuels increase food prices and cause extra deaths via increased poverty effects, beside leading to deforestation. Nuclear isn’t safe or green but then neither are the others.

But now the plot thickens. Because the risks of nuclear that were so clearly demonstrated in Japan are mainly associated with the use  of uranium or plutonium. But now the Chinese are working on thorium based nuclear. Thorium is much safer than other nuclear solutions used today. It can be used without many of the problems associated with today’s stations, waste disposal, meltdowns, leaks and lack of fuel. Thorium is relatively common (as common as lead) so won’t run out for many centuries (of course we will have better solutions still by even the end of this century). Various issues have prevented its adoption before in the West, but if China can make it work well, it may prove a valuable solution to clean energy, as well as solving some of the political issues with sourcing fuel, since it is available in many places.

However, if public perception of nuclear power overall cannot be improved, even thorium based power may not be politically acceptable. Sadly, many so-called environmentalists are so locked into anti-nuclear prejudice that it would be hard to see them ever changing their positions, and no amount of facts about environmental benefits will change that. While they hold influence, the environment seems doomed to suffer.

cloud music

Amazon has launched a new service where you can store your music on-line and access it from anywhere. It only has 5GB of storage (I have 30GB of legally owned music) but it is a good start. I will wait till it is enough storage to upload all my stuff because I don’t want to waste loads of time deciding which 5GB I like best, but I rarely listen to music outside the home anyway so there is no hurry for me.

I have not bought much music on-line because I generally haven’t liked the terms and conditions. I do subscribe to a couple of music services, but the tracks I want are often not available. Many old bands don’t have their music on such sites, but it is their music I often need because I own it on vinyl LPs, not MP3 or CDs I can scan in. It is more important of course to have your tracks online if you only have them on vinyl because it takes forever to convert them otherwise. A proper cloud service would be an ideal solution to this problem surely. I would like to be able to take my vinyl records in to some place and have the barcodes scanned to prove that I own them, then given lifetime online cloud access to the tracks as if I had bought them online. They could take and trash the vinyls if they want once I get lifetime access to the digital versions.

And lifetime access for me is really the issue I have with all these kinds of services. Is it a short term thing that lasts as long as the company or till the next disk crash, or is it a genuinely lifetime ownership deal? I have only bought a few tracks online and I have already lost some of them due to PC rebuilds -I may have some license somewhere that allows me to recover them, but I didn’t make any not of how to do so, so regardless of theory or principle or legality, I have effectively lost them in practice. Having cloud solutions with ownership stored properly and with easy intuitive mechanisms would be good, but only if it doesn’t depend on the company surviving. Much as I like Amazon, they may not be around in 25 years. I don’t want my music to vanish if they do. There needs to be a company-independent ownership database for online content storage and access rights that will never expire. The music industry could do that if they cared to. At the moment, they gain too much by selling duplicates (while whining about theft).

So, nice news, another step in the right direction, but there is still some way to go before online music is anything like mature.

Global political change

I’ll ramble a bit but will get there. There have been many times in history when great men (and women) have appeared, led, and achieved great things. I am sure many of us think we are overdue for the next one, particularly in the light that more people are alive today than have ever died. The world recently seems somehow rather lost, directionless. In many countries in every continent, people are unhappy with their leaders. Everywhere, people are crying out for change, but no-one inspirational comes forward to lead. Where are today’s great men and women hiding? Sadly, I don’t know either.

More people globally are connecting to the web, learning how it works. Social networking tools are developing fast, and more people everywhere are starting to realise their political potential. Many people feel let down by their leaders, who often don’t do as they promise once they get elected. Many feel powerless when faced with oppression elsewhere but want to do something about it, and are sick of seeing world leaders do nothing. Many yearn for change.  People want change, not just here or there, but all over the world. There seem few countries where people are happy with their leaders.

But people don’t just want changes in their local conditions. Many of us feel we are part of a global community. When there is trouble in the Middle East, New Zealand, Japan, Australia, or Africa, we feel for the locals much more than decades ago before today’s communications systems made them feel like they are next door. When a government anywhere tries to clamp down on protesters, we all feel sympathy for them. Meanwhile, our leaders talk but usually little happens, and always too late. But people live now in a world of instant communication. They don’t accept any more when it takes weeks to react instead of minutes.

When it is so clear to people that they are winning the power to do something themselves in spite of their leaders, and yet their current leaders flap around ineffectively, then a political vacuum builds.

So far, the use of the web for politics has been confined to individual countries, albeit the effect has then spread to others. What hasn’t happened yet is the uniting of people across the borders. But we should expect it. Just like strikes used to be more effective before other workforces were allowed to come out ‘in sympathy’, so international protests will become much more effective when the people involved are spread across the world.

I am no historian and don’t even have any expertise in politics, so this may be nonsensical, but to me this is starting to look like fertile ground for a global change. I’m not thinking violent change, some kind of global civil war or anything. No, I think what is likely is grass-roots pressure for a new form of governance, where people worldwide link together to use their combined muscle to force leaders to behave and do as their people want. It could be used to help stamp out corruption, rogue states, dictatorships, or force through issues that people care about – environment, human rights, equality, access to clean water and food. I think that is all feasible from what starts off as fairly straightforward social networking.

Perhaps we will see a major but largely leaderless movement, lots of like minds pushing in the same direction, self-organised and emergent. Or it would be very open to leadership by a new generation of web-skilled political types. Or a highly charismatic individual even. One person leading a global movement to make the world a better place in spite of generations of failure by conventional politics.

It feels now that the time is ripe. The technology, the networks, the frustration and the desire for change are all here, we just need the great man or woman to bring us all together now. Surely it must happen, and soon.


Future high street retailing

Retailers are complaining afresh about their high street shops being finely balanced between survival and closure:

It is hard not to feel some sympathy with them, but I also feel a degree of annoyance at their lack of vision. They look like yet another British industry group whose managers can seemingly only understand two tools – cost reduction and price increases. I guess they could get jobs with government if they are made redundant, they are obviously a good match for those who are seemingly only able to tweak tax and interest rates (I feel another blog entry coming on).

In brief, many people have much less money due to the recession, and petrol and food prices have risen a lot, so they have consequently reduced their spending on clothes to help balance their budgets. Like many people, I buy almost everything online or in out of town superstores, and only ever go into town if I need clothes. But the clothes I buy do come from the high street, apart from basic stuff that you can easily pick up at Tescos. (I did notice that my favourite men’s shop in Ipswich has now gone. I have often joked that Ipswich used to be a one-horse town, but then the horse died. So my joke has become a personal reality. Anyway, back to the point).

The retail industry leaders want less financial and administrative pressure on them from government (fair enough) and the ability to pay less to young people (not so sure here). They argue that being able to reduce wages for young workers would let them employ more, thus increasing employment and leading to a retail-led recovery. There is some truth in the argument of course. Reducing the cost of labour allows prices to be reduced, increasing sales. Extra sales stimulates more manufacturing, more supporting services, more R&D, new ideas, and some of all that might be suitable for export. So the argument is not without merit, but economics is very complex, and it is very easy to trip up and invest too much in policies with poor returns. For example, retailers could simply abuse wage reduction to increase profit margins, without either creating  increased jobs or reducing customer prices. Also, many clothes are imported so much of the associated economic benefit from increasing sales would go elsewhere. So, even though allowing retailers to pay lower wages might yield a little economic benefit for the UK as a whole, I think other policies might prove better.

There are many factors in costs of running a high street shop, and many that affect the overall cost of a shopping trip other than the price of the goods. Some have a natural feedback loop. If lots of high street shops close, and there is insufficient demand for yet more coffee shops, the rents demanded by the property developers will fall – they make nothing at all if they charge so much that their building is left vacant. If town centres are left sufficiently empty, the amount that councils can demand for car parking will fall.

There are also lower limits on how far demand will fall. Not everyone is severely affected by recession. A high proportion of the workforce is still in jobs with high job security, especially in the public sector. Some have just as much money as ever, and if anything, have benefited from reducing prices and interest rates. Most are not facing any likely redundancy that might make them unwilling to spend. Others have seen only small reductions in income, via reductions in pay rises or overtime. This bulk of the population guarantees a continued demand for products and services, even in luxury sectors. They will still want clothes, regardless of price reductions, so some stores will certainly be able to stay in business.

So although reducing wages and using the savings to lower prices or increase jobs a bit might help a little, what we really need is the development and deployment of new manufacturing and services that can be sold elsewhere as well as internally. Moving wealth around inside the economy doesn’t help nearly as much, and only yields slow growth. If the retailers focused less on cost reduction and more on other ways to stimulate sales, the benefits would be greater. This is actually true throughout the UK economy, in every sector. UK managers have generally been far to focused on cost reductions instead of looking at ways to improve revenues.

During the 1990s, many retailers introduced coffee shops and restaurants into their high street stores. Since then, there has been little change. The next decade will have to be a bit more imaginative. There are many areas where shops should be innovating and many new areas will be opening in the next few years. High street shopping could and should be much more exciting, and retail revenues could be increased. Some of the services and technologies required would be well suited to exports, so the UK economy as a whole would grow. It is developing these that should be the priority, not wage reductions. So what are they? I looked at some upcoming retail trends in my blog last summer, slightly more nicely packaged in, but I’ll cut and paste the more relevant bits now to save you having to click, and maybe update a bit.

Since the iPhone and iPad became popular, followed by numerous competitive offerings, mobile internet access is now much more useful and accessible. People can now access the net to compare products and prices, or get information, or add value to almost every activity. But the underlying, less conspicuous trend here is that people are getting much more used to accessing all kinds of data all the time, and that ultimately is what will drive retail futures. With mobile access increasing in power, speed and scope, the incentives to create sites aimed at mobile people is increasing, and the tools for doing so are getting better. For example, people will be able to shop around more easily, to compare offerings in other shops even while they remain in the same one. Looking at a suit in M&S, I’ll also be able to see what comparable suits Next has across the street, and make a sensible decision whether it is worth going to try it on.

This will be accelerated by the arrival of head-up displays – video visors and eventually active contact lenses. The progress in 3d TV over the next few years will result in convergence of computer games and broadcast media, and this will eventually converge nicely into retailing too, especially if we add in things like store positioning systems, gesture recognition and artificial intelligence (AI) based profile and context engines. These are all coming quickly. Add all this in to augmented reality, and we have a highly versatile and powerfully immersive environment merged with the real world. It will take years for marketers and customers to work out the full scope of the resultant opportunities. Think of it this way: when computing and telecoms converged, we got the whole of the web, fixed and mobile. This time it isn’t just two industries converging – it is the whole of cyberspace converging with the whole of the real world. And while technology will be the main driver, it will also stimulate a great deal of innovation and progress in the human sides of retailing.

So we should expect decades of fruitful development, it won’t all happen overnight. Lots of companies will emerge, lots of fortunes will be made, and lost, and there will also be lots of opportunities for sluggish companies to be wiped out by new ones or those more willing and able to adapt. Companies that only look at cost reductions will be among the losers. The greatest certainty is that every company in every industry will face new challenges, balanced by new opportunities. Never has there been a better time for a good vision, backed up by energy and enthusiasm. All companies can use the web and any company can use high street outlets if they so desire. It is a free choice of business model. Nevertheless, not all parts of the playing field are equal. Occupying different parts requires different business models. If a store has good service but high prices and no reason someone should not just buy the product on-line after getting all the good advice, then many shoppers will do just that.

An obvious response is to make good use of exclusive designs. A better and longer lasting response is to captivate the customer by ongoing good service, not just pre-sale but after-sale too. A well cared for customer is more likely to buy from the company providing the good care. If staff build personal relationships and get to know their customers, those customers are highly unlikely to buy elsewhere after using their services. Augmented reality isn’t just a toy for technophiles. We’ll all be using it, just as we all now use the web and mobiles. Augmented reality provides a service platform where companies can have an ongoing relationship with the customer. Relationships are about human skills, technology is just a tool-kit.

As we go further down the road of automation, the physical costs of materials and manufacturing will generally fall for any particular specification. Of course, better materials will emerge and these will certainly cost more at first, but that doesn’t alter the general cost-reduction trend. As costs fall, more and more of the product value will move into the world of intangibles. Brand image, trust, care, loyalty, quality of service and so on – these will account for an increasing proportion of the sale price. So when this is factored in, the threat of customers going elsewhere lessens.

AI will play a big role in customer support in future retail, extending the scope of every transaction. Recognising when a customer wants attention, understanding who they are and offering them appropriate service will all fall within the scope of future AI. While that might at first seem to compete with humans, it will actually augment the overall experience, enabling humans to concentrate on the emotional side of the service. Computers will deal with some of the routine everyday stuff and the information intensive stuff, while humans look after the human aspects. When staff are no longer just cogs in a machine, they will be happier, and of course customers get the best of both worlds too. So everyone wins.

Adding gaming will be one of the more fun improvements. If a customer’s companions don’t want to just stand idly and get bored while the customer is served, playing games in the shop might be a pleasant distraction for them. But actually games technology presents the kind of interface that will work well too for customers wanting to explore how products will look or work in the various environments in which they are likely to be used. They can do so with a high degree of realism. All the AI, positioning, augmented reality and so on all add together, making the store IT systems a very powerful part of the sales experience for shopper and staff alike.

Positioning systems exist already, via GPS and mobile phone networks, with Galileo also maybe coming soon. Indoors, some of these systems don’t work, so there is a potential niche for city positioning systems that extend fully inside buildings. With accurate positioning, and adding profiling and AI, retailers can offer very advanced personalised services.

Social networking will change shopping regardless of what retailers do, but if the retailers are proactively engaged in social networking, adding appropriate services in their stores, and capitalising on the various social networks fads, that is surely better than being helpless victims.

Virtual goods have a significant market – online gaming and social networking has created a large market for virtual things, and some of these overlap with stuff sold in high street shops – clothing, cards, novelties, even foods. People in games spend real money buying virtual goods for their characters or their friends. There is no reason why this can’t happen in the high street. Someone playing a fantasy character in World of Warcraft may well be open to trying on a magic cloak in a high tech changing room in a high street clothes store, or drinking something in a coffee shop based on a potion their character is drinking. In fact, the good on offer in a shop could extend to vastly more than are currently on display. With augmented reality, a shopper might walk around a physical store where the entire display area is full of goods customised to them personally. The physically present items that are not suited to them might be digitally replaced in their visors by others that are. This increases the effective sales area dramatically. The goods need not be entirely virtual of course. They might well be real physical products available online, or form a larger store, or from associates. We may see companies like Amazon using real high street shops to sell goods from their stores – they’ve effectively been doing that with bookshops for years without even having the consent of the bookshops, so why not extend it using proper business alliances, implemented professionally, instead of simply digitally trespassing?

Try-on outlets are another obvious development. People mostly want to try clothes on before purchasing them (I am one of the many men who lets their wives buy most of their clothes, so am not sure how much of a ‘mostly’ it is). But not everyone is a standard shape or size, in fact very few people are. So although an item might fit perfectly, usually it won’t. Having a body scan to determine your precise shape and size, and having a garment custom manufactured would be a big improvement. With advanced technology and logistics, this wouldn’t add very much to the purchase price. A shopper in a future high street outlet might try on a garment, and if they like it, they would take it to the checkout, or more likely, just scan the price tag with their mobile. Their size and shape would be documented on a loyalty card, mobile device, store computer, or more likely just out there somewhere on the cloud. The garment then goes back on the shelf. A custom garment (the customer may be able to choose many personalisation options at this stage) would then be manufactured and delivered to the person’s home or the store, and this process could well be as fast as overnight. The customer gets a garment perfectly suited to them, that fits perfectly. The shop also gains because only one item of each size needs to be stocked, so they can store more varieties. The store evolves into a try-on outlet, selling from a greatly increased range of products. Their revenue increases greatly, and their costs are reduced too, with less risk of being left with stuff that won’t sell. Local manufacturing benefits, because the fast response prohibits long distance outsourcing. If the services and technologies required for all of these advances are developed in the UK, there may well be large export potential too. From a UK perspective, everyone wins. None of this would happen simply by trying to cut costs.

Clothes and accessories stores will obviously benefit greatly from such technology, allowing customers to choose more easily. But technology can also add to the product itself. Some customers will be uninterested in adding technology whereas for others it will be a big bonus having the extra features. Today, social networking is just starting to make the transition to mobile devices. In a few years’ time, many items of accessories or clothes will have built in IT functionality,enabling them to play a leading role in the wearer’s social networking, broadcasting personal data into surrounding space or coming with a virtual aura, loaded with avatars that appear differently to each viewer. Glasses can do this, and also provide displays, change colour using thin film coatings, and even record what the wearer sees and hears. They might even recognise some emotional reactions via pupil dilation, identifying people that the user appears interested in, for example. Health is another are obviously suited to jewellery and accessories, many of which are in direct contact with skin. Accessories can monitor health, act as a communications device to a clinic, even control the release of medicines in smart capsule.

But the biggest change in retailing is certainly the human one, adding human-based customer service. Technology is quickly available to everyone and eventually ceases to be a big differentiator, whereas human needs will persist, and always offer a means to genuine value add. This effect will run throughout every sector and will bring in the care economy, wherehuman skills dominate and computers look after routine transactions at low cost. Robots and computers will play an important part in the future, but humans will dominate in adding value, simply because people will always value people above machines – or indeed any other organic species. Focusing on human value-add is therefore a good strategy to future proof businesses. The more value that can be derived from the human element, the less vulnerable a business will be from technology development. The key here is to distinguish between genuine human skills and those where the human is really just acting as part of a machine.Putting all this together, we can see a more pleasant future of retailing. As we recover from the often sterile harshness of web shopping and start to concentrate more on our quality of life, value will shift from the actual physical product itself towards the whole value of the role it plays in our lives, and the value of associated services provided by the retailer. As the relationship grows and extends outside the store, retailing will regain the importance it used to have as a full human experience. Retailers used to be the hub of a community and they can be again if the human side is balanced with technology.Sure, we will still shop on-line much of the time, but even here, the ease and quality of that will depend to some degree on the relationship we already have with the retailer. Companies will be more responsive to the needs of the community and more integrated into them. And when we once again know the staff and know they care about us, shopping can resume its place as a fun and emotionally rewarding part of our lives.In the end it is all about engaging with the customer, making them excited, empowering them and showing them you care. When you look after them, they will keep coming back. And it is quite nice to think that the more advanced the technology becomes, the more it humanises us.

So, retailing, and even in the high street, has a potential very bright future. There is lots of competition, but good companies will thrive. Cost cutting is the wrong approach, even during recession. Investing in advanced technologies and improved services increases revenue, increase profits, leads to real economic growth, maintains potentially high wages, stimulates lots of new jobs in many sectors, and improves quality of life for all concerned. It really should be a no-brainer. Retailers should stop moaning and get on with it.

Rise of the cybernation

In 1993, I wrote a paper with two colleagues, outlining how East would meet West in Cyberspace. We suggested that the internet would allow people to link up in new ways, to mobilise their combined power from grass roots upwards, and sometimes be able to put great pressure on geographic governments. We didn’t put a time-scale on it, but later we did, and suggested that 2005 would be the time when people discovered the net politically. I guess we could argue that wasn’t far off – people really only started using the net in elections around then. But that wasn’t the real story of what we were saying. But only slightly later, people started using the net to coordinate demonstrations, and the adventures in the Middle East now are a demonstration of a slightly more advanced use. So, we were only a couple of years early, and people are starting to wake up to the political power that the web offers. Geographic government has already shown that its first reaction is self-defence (not of its citizens, but of its own institution), to try to prevent people from exerting their will, to shut off communication by disabling the net as far as it can. And while the net still relies on 20th century telecomms networks and 20th century web architectures, government can switch it off at the points in enters the country.

I later wrote a follow-on paper, from Cyberspace to Chaos and Back, which argued that cyberspace is not dependent on particular networks, but is essentially impossible to limit or censor. I still hold by that. Cyberspace is much greater that the world wide web, mobile phone networks, or even the whole internet combined with all the world’s telecomms networks. Cyberspace is a notional mathematical place, infinite in scope and dimensionality, that exists only virtually, but parts of it can be manifested physically in many ways, and has very different properties from physical space. Governments can only ever cut some of the links to some of the parts of it. They can never disable it in principle. Although physical networks will always be limited to some degree, cyberspace isn’t. And it is cyberspace that really lends itself to politics. The reason people use mobile text messages or emails or Facebook is because those are the tools they have available to them. They are merely scratching the surface of what is possible. As better political tools become available, they will use them too, though history already shows it takes a few years for the penny to drop. Cyberspace will lend itself well to politics, but we can only begin to speculate the magnitude of effects or the mechanisms that will be used. Anyway, we are still only in 2011 and the tools available now or in the near future are much easier to deal with conceptually, so I will stick with a few easy bits. Suffice it to say that even if there are limitations in any particular network type, with an infinite domain, there is always another way in which cyberspace can survive and be used, just around the corner.

Some governments are quite effective at preventing most of their people from accessing the web, but their are usually holes in their systems, even if they do require good IT skills to exploit them – e.g. anonymity servers, strong encryption or disguising information in seemingly innocent pictures. For most people, access to the net for political campaigning in such regions is still at the mercy of their geographic government, but it isn’t over yet by a long way. Technology stands still for no-one. Social web tools are developing extremely quickly now, and this year will almost certainly turn out to be an inflection point in the political use of the web, where ordinary people realise that it isn’t just a minor tool to be used to sway opinions during elections, or to help coordinate demonstrations, but can actually allow them to make demands and force leaders to listen. As these tools develop, doubtless some governments will learn in the background how to turn off networks more effectively. But resistance is futile. Cyberspace ultimately doesn’t need the web, the internet, or mobile phone networks. Controlling these only buys a little more time, it can’t stop the slide towards political use of cyberspace.

If the networks are controlled, and even the latest generation internet-based social networking tools can’t get through, then people will try to bypass them. Two developments at least in the next few years will allow very effective social networking without even going near the net. One is the use of wireless memory sticks, the other digital jewellery, essentially the same thing but even smaller. Today, memory sticks store lots of data but most can only communicate via USB ports. Many of us use radio dongles to access wireless or mobile nets, and these are often about the same size or slightly bigger.  Obviously memory sticks and wireless dongles could be combined in the same stick, with addition of a little processing and even sensing technology. We will then have high capacity memory sticks that can communicate well with one another, as well as to many other devices. Of course, devices such as laptops have been able to set up networks directly with other machines for some years, but they are not so easy to hide. Mobile phones were once expected to fill the gap too, with bluetooth and ad-hoc networks, but direct web access and cheap mobile comms has stifled innovation in direct device to device comms, so the niche remains largely empty, certainly for small devices that can easily be hidden.

Alternatively, ultrasound or optical communication could also be used to let sticks talk to each other, though short range radio is certainly the most likely to be implemented in the next few years. Without looking at all the various short range radio standards already being developed, what they have in common is that short range radio systems (a few metres or less) generally allow high data rates with low power consumption, but allow only very small cells because the air absorbs the signals they use very quickly and they are low power anyway. The reuse of radio spectrum in each cell increases overall bandwidth and capacity enormously, and that is the primary advantage driving their development, but the rapid absorption of the signals is extremely valuable too in making it difficult to intercept the signals from any distance. It is this factor that will make them an ideal platform on which to build a bypass to officially controlled networks. Unless there is a receiver within the very short range, any communication between the sticks would be hidden. Memory sticks are also generally anonymous – they don’t indicate who it is that owns them. Wireless memory sticks would make an ideal starting point for a network that can be used to bypass officially monitored nets, whatever the motivation, be it criminal or political activity, but a memory stick network also presents an alternative platform for perfectly ordinary everyday networking. A memory stick network could be formed out of short-distance and short-lived links between memory sticks owned by total strangers passing by in the street, a highly dynamic ad-hoc network. Information could progress across a wide area via such random organic connections, albeit much slower than with a conventional end to end network. Connections across long distances would sometimes only be possible via the physical movement of the devices or the use of special links.

In this approach, political messages or any other information would jump from one stick to another and then on to another, hopping organically from one place to another, quickly spanning a whole country with an ad-hoc network. The network would have a relatively long transmission time end to end unless density was high or if it used the main networks for long hauls, so is not suited to real-time comms.  A bypass network avoiding main network use would have lots of gaps in it, but this may well be an acceptable trade-off to gain secrecy for political activities.

Security and authentication could be added to such networks by any group, making sure the right protocols are used, otherwise barring sticks from the communication and making infiltration harder. It is relatively easy to design such a network with such built-in security, and will get easier as technology progresses to digital jewellery. People then may wear several pieces of electronic gadgetry, and this enables very sophisticated security approaches, with an infinite number of potential combinations of chips, pins, gestures, passwords, biometrics and so on. Large social groups could thus coordinate activities away from the eyes and ears of the authorities or rival groups. At the ordinary social networking level, this functionality may develop out of natural desire for people to want to communicate with others of similar interest, fellow club members, or even just others on their friends lists. Political uses may not even be on the design goals for the manufacturers. Nevertheless, political uses would quickly be found by users. This could be highly scalable, extending to political groups that could reach billions (billions of people care about the environment for example).

Clearly, such networks could be used in revolutions where existing government is trying to stifle opposition by denying communications. Of course, they may try to limit imports of such tiny devices, but their size might make this impossible, and detection could be made difficult too. It could be a valuable tool for democracy, but it could equally well be used by groups that intend harm, so it will not all be good news.

At some point, network based groups could become as large as nations, and perhaps some will demand representation on international political committees. The term cybernations has often been used to describe this potential, but the theorising will likely soon become reality. It is also obvious that groups could cross geographic boundaries. Even though most political parties only exist in single countries, their core ideologies are often held in common with parties in other countries. So we ought to expect that as the web becomes an increasingly political platform, that international parties would rise and grow on the web. Some of those may require some degree of secrecy, and memory stick networks would make a good platform.

The skills to wield power on the net will not be the same as those in current politics. Just as the soap box, the newspaper, radio, TV, and lately the web have changed politics (and indeed still are), memory stick and digital jewellery nets will do so in the further future.

Cybernations may use any and all of the tools available, and can be as anonymous as required. If groups are large, but their membership can act anonymously, that will make them dangerous, because they may be more willing to wield their power without fear of reprisal. Large numbers of people command large resources, spending power and influence, and if they are networked effectively, then their actions can be coordinated and orchestrated. Infiltration at human level is always possible of course, regardless of any technology, but self-organisation tools can be used that allow general principles and guidelines to be followed in small groups without everyone in the whole cybernation knowing what is happening in any local detail. This approach is already used in terrorist groups to good effect, and electronic networking will only make it more effective.

Not all cybernations require secrecy, and some need secrecy for only some parts of operations. If the cybernation can access global networks freely most of the time, then it can openly wield economic weapons such as boycotts effectively. Being able to pick on a large company if they ‘misbehave’, damaging their market almost immediately, would be a powerful weapon, especially if backed up with cyberwarfare, and using the mass of machines owned by the group members. Doom-mongering is always fun, and this is an especially easy field in which to do it, but the harsh likely reality is still worth worrying about.What is happening now in the Middle East is interesting and owes some of the starting activity to the web, but it is a mere glimpse of what is coming in the next few years. Network use in politics is only a tiny embryo so far, and we have little historical precedent on which to base any deductions as to what it is likely to look like. The best we can do yet is to identify a few of the minor features in its genome.