Algorithms nowadays do more than determining which books, DVDs, CDs or whatever you might want at Amazon. While that’s always amusing for me, given my catholic tastes (and no, I don’t like Johnny Cash, but thanks for keeping on suggesting him), it’s more puzzling when it decides that my partner – who recently bought a tent – must now want several more. We’re not planning on building a tented city anywhere, but Amazon’s algorithms struggle with the difference between wants and needs, no matter how many books about Maslow’s Heirarchy their parent site may sell.

Commonly overlooked but increasingly ubiquitous in our lives, algorithms deserve more of our attention. And better understanding: the nearest convenient dictionaries define an algorithm as “A process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, esp. by a computer” or – in the ‘defined for kids’ option – as “a step-by-step method for solving a problem (as finding the greatest common divisor) or accomplishing a goal”. As the embedding of algorithmic ‘solutions’ (in the Private Eye column sense) goes, suggesting a book or two is relatively harmless: I can combine my catholicism with a discriminatory touch. But the human tendency to codify has seen them implemented in places where the potential is more significant, and not necessarily in a positive way.

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Mark Ronson – who, to parody Private Eye’s impression of High Court Judges, we might describe to the unfamiliar as a producer of popular music discs – isn’t the first man I’d turn to for insights into the impact of communications media on modern life. (No offence meant, Mr Ronson: if we’re maligning you too unfairly, perhaps a PR angle adjustment is due?) But his tweet of 30 March 2011 hit one modern nail very firmly on the head:

the problem with answering emails is that, then you’re almost always guaranteed to receive another one”

(If you’re susceptible to the idea of now playing text or tweet tennis with him, I hope you saw his more recent offering – “I read most my texts/tweets aloud in a Vincent Price voice. Don’t write me things like “ahahahahahahaha”, it comes off creepy and sinister”: any suggestions for messages to tweet to him appreciated. Perhaps we could match-make an online bromance with http://twitter.com/dalailama?)

My point – and I think Ronson’s also – is that sending emails or texts is now so easy it’s as difficult to resist temptation as it is to give in: that is, not very difficult at all. We may tell ourselves we live in The Information Age, but surely an economist would disagree: commodities gain value through either scarcity (which plainly doesn’t apply) or utility (which must be highly debatable).

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Are you getting your five a day? No, not fruit & veg. Not even superfruits. Emails. That little red light lighting up on your crac … sorry, BlackBerry to help you feel needed, wanted, useful: after all, if you’re on call 24/7, you’re somebody, right? Having been totally absorbed for the last few days, using both thumbs to navigate my way through Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, I’m wondering if the question isn’t actually how much of a somebody you might be becoming, and what your Blackberry says about you – and your relationship not so much with technology, but with the rest of humanity.

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Not, on the face of things, a book about organisational change, HR or learning, I hear you murmur. True, I’d murmur back, but a book you might gain a lot from reading nonetheless. While Morozov’s primary focus in The Net Delusion may be on the socio-political impact of the Internet, and on repeatedly, provocatively and effectively countering the prevailing view of it as a force for democratisation, openness, dissemination (and quite possibly a cure for a real gallimaufry of our ills), in the context of this blog and the professional focus of its audience the book has a useful role to play as both eye-opener and reality check. Webs may not be inherently wicked, but they’re not simple either: the clue, as they say, is in the name.

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Steve Knight is a journalist, editor and consultant who has been at the forefront of the internal communication sector for more than 20 years. He has edited the Institute of Internal Communications (IoIC) magazine for the last decade and trained hundreds of IC professionals. He is also one of the people responsible for creating and launching the IoIC Foundation and Advanced Level accreditation programmes, both of which are administered by his company, Knight Train & Consult Ltd. We interviewed Steve after an evening of lively, informed and often humorous and provocative conversations at the recent Workworld Media Awards, taking the occasion to explore a range of internal communications issue with an experienced and dedicated professional – you’ll find his responses to our questions below.

Read Steve’s full biography and his Personal Learning Profile.

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Well, having been a student myself for the last three years, I can tell you that the students have always been revolting – anyone who risked entering my kitchen in the first year can attest to this.

As if being a graduate in 2010 couldn’t get any worse, we now have the dubious pleasure of being implicated by association with the student fees protesters. Whether or not we agree with the cuts or disagree is immaterial. The fact is: we are young, we were at university, and so in all likelihood we are now devising new and inventive ways to scale the Cenotaph or thinking of what we’re going to write on the sandwich board that we will inevitably turn up for work wearing. Brilliant…

But for the sake of impartiality, I’m going to avoid getting bogged down in an inevitably dull discussion of the cuts or the protesters or their incredibly disrespectful (woops!) actions last week. I’m not interested in the ‘whats’ and the ‘whys’ of the protests, but rather, the ‘hows’. In particular, the way that the students have used social media to generate, galvanise and mobilise support, and what organisations can learn from this.

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As we mentioned the other day, the way that social media interacts with our professional lives is changing. A turning point neatly articulated by the current media furore surrounding Sarah Baskerville. The story in itself isn’t particularly ground breaking. The big scoop, as the Daily Mail sees it, is that Sarah Baskerville is a civil servant that drinks occasionally, doesn’t relish every single second of her working life and has some reservations about the government’s new spending plan. She is also described as “an incorrigible contributor to the internet.”

Were it any of the lowlier national papers, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were being hard on ‘Baskers’ simply because she’s a senior civil servant that they know will be an easy target for the readership to get their teeth stuck into. But far be it from us to question the Daily Mail: an institution widely regarded as the last bastion of morality and professionalism in our troubled age.

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