Archive for the ‘Future’ Category

American War – Omar El Akkad

 A civil war, crippled infrastructure, rampant corruption, random drone strikes, factional in-fighting and suicide bombers groomed from the ranks of despairing youth.

Such a scenario would normally pass for a despotic regime in the Middle East, but Egyptian-born author Akkad flips it to American soil to show how divisive ideologies and misguided policies create the perfect seedbed for terrorism to grow. 

The catalyst for war is fossil fuel use in a country where rising sea levels have forced mass migrations from both coasts.

A bill to ban their use throughout the US is championed by the president and leads to his assassination in 2073 by a secessionist suicide bomber.

The country splits between North and South, Blue and Red, with new reasons for animosity layered onto historic hatreds.

Akkad ups the ante still further, stripping away veneers of civilization to imagine state-sponsored biological genocide, the release of a virus and the murder of 100m people.

If you think that’s unlikely, the world’s emerging superpower is the Bouazizi Empire, a conglomeration of former Arab countries who have thrown off their oppressors and joined forces. 

They sustain the conflict in America, working both sides of the divide in what one of the regime’s fixers declares to be purely “a matter of self-interest, no more”.

It’s a cynical denouement, showing the US what it’s like to be on the end of its own foreign policies and the cruel consequences of such interventions.

Akkad’s dystopian vision invites the country to bridge its venomous political divide and return to some kind of consensus politics – or face an horrendous future.

Fiber optic

Flickr image by x_tine

Within the next decade the US should be well on its way to becoming a Gigabit Nation.

Superfast broadband – or Gigabit Internet – holds the promise of delivering richer and more immersive entertainment and gaming, new skills, new jobs, new lifestyles and even greater possibilities for prosperity.

If that sounds like a rosy depiction of the future, it is, but there’s a dark side too, which has the potential to leave communities and groups that are most in need of assistance at a severe disadvantage. You could call it a Gigabit Divide; one which could grow with speed of service.

The benefits of fiber for homes and businesses can be encapsulated in three words – bigger, better, faster: Bigger flows of data, better connectivity and faster uploads and downloads. Yet 30 million-plus Americans currently have no broadband connection of any kind.

Professor Susan Crawford who served as President Barack Obama’s Special Assistant for Science, Technology and Innovation, warned back in 2009 that: “We are creating two Americas where the wealthy have access . . . while others are left on a bike path, unable to join in the social and economic benefits that the Internet brings”.

Wealth inequality in the U.S. is almost as wide now as when the stock market crashed in 1929 so there’s every reason to suppose the roll-out of superfast Internet services will leave millions more people in the technological slow lane.

The rules of engagement are sometimes tricky. Requirements of Gigabit Internet providers can include neighborhood adoption rate minimums and hook-up costs which threaten to shut out lower-income households. One alternative in the near-term is greater investment in ultra-high-speed broadband in public venues such as libraries and community centers.

Very real concerns about inequity aside, Blair Levin, who leads a group of U.S. universities that are seeking to accelerate the deployment of high-speed networks, believes it is still the best path to drive economic growth and to stimulate innovation in areas like healthcare and education.

The issue for communities, he believes, is how to take advantage of digital wealth, how to create what he calls community capital and how to have a stake in the civic society of the future.

Information – cheaply distributed – creates wealth

Speaking at a regional broadband summit in St Louis in September, he said:” The most valuable resource in our economy is information and as the distribution cost of the wealth approaches zero, digital technology has the ability to create a kind of wealth unknown in other times; the best for one becomes available for all.”

While digital wealth was not a panacea, he said, no community would have jobs or opportunity if it didn’t allow its residents full access to digital wealth and for that to be available there had to be a network.

A recent study commissioned by the Fiber to the Home Council examined 55 U.S. communities in nine states and found that the 14 which had widespread Gigabit Internet access had per capita gross domestic product – or total combined economic activity – 1.1 percent higher than the 41 similar locales without it. Those 41 communities lost a total of as much as $3.3 billion in economic activity as a result, the study found.

The relative speed and cost of U.S. networks compared with other parts of the world is a prime concern for many telecoms specialists who fear the U.S. could lose its competitive edge in areas like business, education and innovation.

Population density a key factor

Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea routinely top the table for high-speed services. All three have densely-packed metropolitan areas with high-rise apartments  (almost half of the 50 million population of South Korea lives in the Seoul Capital Area)  making them attractive propositions for commercial players. Delivering fiber to small, remote communities is much less so.

As of last year, the Fiber to the Home Council reported market penetration of ultra-high-speed Internet in the U.S. was 8.4 percent of residential customers, far behind United Arab Emirates (72 percent), South Korea (70 percent), Japan (50 percent), Taiwan (45 percent) and Hong Kong (44 percent).

Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler recently told Washington D.C.’s 1776 start-up community that where competition could not be expected to exist, the government would have to shoulder the responsibility.

“One thing we already know is the fact that something works in New York City doesn’t mean it works in rural South Dakota. We cannot allow rural America to be behind the broadband curve.

“Our universal service efforts are focused on bringing better broadband to rural America by whomever steps up to the challenge – not the highest speeds all at once, but steadily to prevent the creation of a new digital divide.”

Platform for radical innovation

How that unfolds remains unclear, as Wheeler’s use of “whomever” underlines. But Gigabit-age innovation could spark widely-distributed benefits which partly make up for varying home Internet speeds. Pew Research recently canvassed opinions for killer apps in the Gigabit Age and received more than 1,400 responses. Suggestions ranged from remote surgery and virtual reality environments for living, to disaggregated schooling.

The truth is no one really knows what’s coming but they expect it to be profound. And if they did know, as media specialist George Leddard declared:  “I wouldn’t tell you, I’d invest in it”.

Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, summed it up when he told Pew: “I could not have predicted Google, Facebook, Blogger, or certainly Twitter. So there’s no way I can predict what ubiquitous gigabit bandwidth will bring. I only know I want it.”

This story was commissioned by and first appeared on The Open Standard website.

Geography of Nowhere

Prince Charles accused them of being artless, mediocre and contemptuous of public opinion. The old joke was that they had inflicted more damage on London than the Luftwaffe, but it wasn’t funny and nobody was laughing.

‘They’ are the post-war urban planners and ‘they’ have a lot to answer for. But the bumbling British versions are as nothing compared to American counterparts reinforced by ludicrous zoning restrictions and lunatic laws.

It’s why the simplest of tasks here almost always require a journey by car. It’s why strip malls brutalize the landscape, appalling ‘architecture’ abounds and attempts to escape become an engine of urban sprawl.

Try buying a loaf in the suburbs, or looking for a corner shop that sells fresh fruit and veg. Honestly, don’t bother. It’s a fool’s errand. The closest you’ll get is non-food at the nearest gas station.

More than 20 years ago author James Howard Kunstler poured his rage onto the page about the state of America’s “crudscape”in his book The Geography of Nowhere and in the intervening years not much has changed.

His withering invective is a delight to read. He’s beyond grumpy. This is a crimson-faced man ranting in foam-flecked, spittle-spraying fury as he pours contempt onto anyone and everyone who has contributed to the monstrous blight

Here’s a sample: “Eighty per cent of everything built in America has been built in the last 50 years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy and spiritually degrading – the jive-plastic commuter tract home wastelands, the Potemkin-village shopping plazas with their vast parking lagoons, the Lego-block hotel complexes, the “gourmet mansardic” junk-food joints, the Orwellian office “parks” featuring buildings sheathed in the same reflective glass as the sunglasses worn by chain gang guards, the particle-board garden apartments rising up in every meadow and cornfield, the freeway loops around every big and little city with their clusters of discount merchandise marts, the whole destructive, wasteful, toxic, agoraphobia-inducing spectacle that politicians proudly call “growth”.

It wouldn’t be much of a book if it was just a rant, though. Kunstler takes a scholarly stroll through 400 years of New World development, points out features of special interest, changes that could, and should, be made and makes a delightful, spiteful, opinionated companion along the way.

As he explains, the rise and demise of America’s man-made landscape has all the usual venal underpinnings you’d expect, but the book also includes some of the well-meant but subsequently disastrous efforts to create idyllic surroundings.

As far back as the 1950s economist JK Galbraith was suggesting that the US had become a nation that tolerated “private affluence and public squalor” and there are echoes of this throughout Kunstler’s assessment.

Civic pride has been supplanted, individual rights have trumped wider public benefits and coherent communities have been ghettoized by wealth apartheid.

Kunstler reserves most of his bile for the effects the car has wrought on everyday life and the landscape, but there’s plenty left for the automobile’s “master builder,” Robert Moses, who favored the car over public transit at every opportunity.

When he wrote the book in 1994, Kunstler thought rising gas prices and environmental concerns would force the US to rethink its ideas about urban planning and community. Not so. Fracking will keep the wheels turning for a long while yet.  And while our heads are buried in the tar sands the temperature keeps on rising.

newspicHave you heard..? Did you see..? Being bang up-to-date with the latest news or gossip is a big part of social capital. It’s what makes us interesting to others and it’s one of the reasons we give up our most precious resource to get it – our time.

Constantly revising knowledge of what’s going on around us is a deeply-rooted instinct borne of fight-or-flight perils. Anticipating threats and opportunities might just give us an edge to avoid mortal danger – or alternatively help us make a killing (metaphorically speaking).

The value of any information exchange comes from the usefulness of what’s being imparted set against the time and energy expended to find out.

For news providers this creates a quandary. They want to be consistently first with the news and they also want to deliver high value information; doing both, while not incompatible, is often difficult.

For readers and viewers, the sheer volume of material that has to be ploughed through to make the exercise worthwhile can be tedious and time-consuming, especially when the signal is suppressed by noise.

It’s why coverage of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, MH370, was described by media commentator Michael Wolff as “the new anti-journalism – all data, no real facts, endless theories”.

The Public Editor at the New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, condemned her own organization for its use of anonymous sources and comments in its reporting:

“In a news story about the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, there’s this anonymous quotation, commenting on a suggestion (also anonymously sourced) that someone may have piloted the aircraft to as high as 45,000 feet, above the 43,100-foot ceiling for the Boeing 777. The passage reads:

“A current Boeing 777-200 pilot for an Asian-based airline said the move could have been intended to depressurize the cabin and render the passengers and crew unconscious, preventing them from alerting people on the ground with their cellphones. “Incapacitate them so as to carry on your plan uninterrupted,” the pilot said.

“As a reader, Danny Burstein, wrote to me: “There’s absolutely no reason to quote an anonymous source who’s making a ridiculous claim of this sort, and triply so since your reporter could have called any of a hundred other pilots who’d have gone on the record saying this was garbage.”

The lack of sourcing is in clear contravention of the Times’ reporting guidelines. It’s also a symptom of the competitive pressure news providers are under; quality is compromised for the sake of speed.

Those prepared to put in the extra time to check facts, verify details, and find robust sources, come a poor second when the rumor mill is in full spate. There is no “slow news” movement.

We, the audience, are fickle. We know the trade-off, but we want to have our cake and eat it too. A news organization that’s consistently behind the curve when a major story is unfolding suffers reputational damage. Caution gets trampled underfoot in the audience rush to those who will fill the vacuum.

In my previous post …and now the news for you, and you, and you I talked about a much more personal form of news; narrowcast not broadcast, tailored more to the individual, less to a mass audience.

News organizations are firing blind with their salvoes of information and they’ll continue to do so until they offer readers and viewers the chance to fine tune their news supply.

Push notifications, alerts and updates were once a way of staying across major news developments. Now they’re an irritation.

Andy Hickl, cofounder and CEO of the lifelogging app, Saga, recently stated that he was turning off his alerts and opting out of what he called notification overload – at least until his apps got to know him better.

He’s not alone. From my time at the BBC, I quickly learned that some users wanted fewer breaking news alerts, too many were being sent and they were intrusive and annoying. For others there were too few: why hadn’t an alert been sent on such and such? (We all gauge the importance of news through our own prism of interests. My world’s big news may not correspond to your scale of what’s important).

There were complaints, too, from viewers who wanted only fact-checked, double-sourced, fully verified alerts, while others preferred the absolute latest information and were happy to make reach their own conclusions about its worth.

The gripes haven’t gone away. There’s still no rheostat for breaking news that lets me decide how much is too much; that lets me choose to swim through the farrago of twisted facts, half-truths, rumors and theories to distil my own version of plausibility and value, or to signpost that I’ll have none of it until the dust has settled and a clear picture has emerged.

Fine-tuning to that degree is easy to talk about, much more difficult to deliver. It also begs one very big question: Would you use it if it was offered?

Optimization choices in the recent past have been a minority pursuit because of the time required of individuals to set them up. We now spend so much time batting away the irrelevant and the inconsequential that the tide may have turned.

So, is sophisticated filtering time well spent, or is it more trouble than it’s worth? Once we have the answer to that question we can either move towards a smarter, more precisely targeted supply of stories – or we can continue to scrabble for news nuggets in a growing mountain of information.

newsroom

I’m waiting. Still waiting, that is, for a new type of news product that meets my needs.

It’ll be one that makes the best use of my time, which signposts important material, riddles out the irrelevant and delivers the unexpected.

I’d like some contrarian content in the mix, something that challenges my world view, jolts me from my perch of certainty and make me re-evaluate my position.

By necessity I’m going to have to give up a lot of information about myself and my interests to get what I want. And I’m willing to do that if it delivers the relevance I crave.

I’m happy to enter into a relationship where what I share creates a better experience for me and a better business proposition for my news provider.

I want them to come to know me better, to change and develop their offering as our engagement deepens.

I’m unique, of course, just like you. And what you want and what I want isn’t going to be the same.

The successful news provider of the future is going to have to pander to each and every one of us, to manage millions of nuanced relationships and to cope with requirements in a continual state of flux. Pushing the same stuff at everyone simply isn’t going to cut it.

We’ve transitioned away from a world of time-specific TV news broadcasts and individuals’ favored newspapers and magazines. The virtual doorstep is piled high with content and no matter how much you wade through there’s always more to take its place.

It’s all very well for author Clay Shirky to dismiss the idea of information overload as “filter failure” – even though he’s correct in his observation. Without effective filters consuming news is a Sisyphean task.

So where are the tools that let me, the person who knows me best, define what I want or, perhaps more usefully, what I know I don’t want?

Up to now, Zite has come closest to resolving the filtering problem and its recent acquisition by Flipboard’s Mike McCue makes for a doubly exciting prospect.

As well as delivering stories from a wider range of sources than I would have reached by my own efforts, Zite does a pretty good job of aggregating content by topic headings.

I say pretty good, because the oh-so-clever algorithm regularly comes unstuck and delivers items about garden gates into my Bill Gates aggregation pot.

Marking stories with indications of approval or disapproval is a good step too, especially if the feedback assists in the selection or rejection of future pieces.

That said, the thumbs up, thumbs down, notifications can seem insensitive. Somehow it doesn’t feel right to give a thumbs-up to an article about Auschwitz or a disaster or an atrocity. And what does it signify anyway – that you enjoyed reading it, that it was insightful, or that you agreed with its conclusions?

At least Zite is soliciting feedback, even if it’s pretty basic. Offering consumers a chance to give reactions is laudable and much as I’d like to have something more sophisticated I concede that it’s likely to be a minority sport for the foreseeable future.

I like, too, that Zite allows me to indicate that my news preferences skew towards certain publications and individual journalists – more from these, less from others. It lets me hone the organizations and people I want my content to come from.

The danger with this kind of filtering is that it ends up reinforcing existing prejudices, you only hear what you want to hear and that’s when the serendipity engine needs to kick in. Whether it’s based on the zeitgeist of most read, most watched, most shared material or a counter-culture of contrarian opinion there needs to be some wild card content in the mix.

Another of my requirements has taken root in Cir.ca – the ability to track a story by flagging an interest in it.

Cir.ca stories come with a “follow” button and they have identified this as one of their key metrics. When a reader follows a storyline it tells them the person has more than a passing interest; if there’s something new to learn, they want to know.

Capturing “follows” lets Cir.ca target notifications to those who actively want to keep abreast of developments while avoiding those with only a passing interest.

As it states in its blog, push notifications are nearing saturation and these types of update have become both a blessing and a curse.

“Our solution is to put the choice in your hands and allow you to decide what’s important enough to push. You could say we have two main goals: to inform and to respect your time while doing it.”

I’d like Cir.ca to take this process further, to allow me to fine tune my “follows” to take account of the waxing and waning of my interest.

There are times when news is breaking that I want every detail to be passed on as soon as it emerges. There are others when I want only the most significant developments to be pushed through – a development that would require the story’s intro to be recast. And there times when I want a longer term notification, an update on a story that was big news but has since gone off the boil: Haiti’s earthquake four years on, for instance.

No single news provider is going to be able to accommodate all these needs. Businesses are going to have to figure out how to work with rivals to synthesize content and share the proceeds.

It’s why the coming together of Flipboard and Zite is one of the best and most exciting developments of recent times.

More than two million magazines have been created since Flipboard’s inception in January 2010. It offers both abundance and niche, a pro-am aggregation mix, and packaging that attractively reformats itself as new content rolls in.

With Zite it gets expertise in personalization and recommendations, meaning better and easier content discovery.

Facebook hasn’t been standing still while this unfolds. It recently launched a mobile app called Paper in the US, which takes a leaf from Flipboard’s book and recrafts users’ news feeds into something more elegant and magazine-like.

The winner will be the one that can build the deepest relationship with its readers and viewers while meeting the needs of the individual as well as the masses.

photo

You know you’re into something special when you open a book randomly and find something compelling on every page.

Sonia Shah performs a great balancing act in delivering the complexities of malarial science while keeping the storytelling brisk and riveting.

The long history of the disease also provides her with rich pickings and some great anecdotes like that of Oliver Cromwell.

He spurned one of the best and most effective treatments of the day, the ground-up bark of the cinchona tree, because it had been brought to Europe by Jesuit missionaries.

Anti-Catholic sentiment saw him dismiss it as “Jesuit’s Powder” and at 59 he died,  20 years after its introduction from South America. Had he tried it and survived would Britain’s constitutional monarchy ever have made a return?

Another tale recalls sufferer Sir Walter Raleigh who, when captive in the Tower of London, prayed not to have a malarial fit on the scaffold in case people thought he was shivering with fear.

And harking back to Roman times, there’s a story about Julius Caesar being struck down with malaria while, paradoxically, the disease-riddled swamps around the imperial city kept besieging foreign armies at bay.

There’s more to this book than mere anecdotes though. There’s much to think about in Shah’s view of how the disease affected the culture and demography of the United States, creating “deep cultural prejudices…that persist to this day”.

In documenting previous efforts to thwart the disease, she relates how drugs have been misused, strategies ill-thought out and quick fix “solutions” have been anything but.

Environmental disturbance, climate change and mass movement of people have all been exploited by the parasite which continues to plague mankind.

Attempts to combat the illness have occupied some of the world’s finest minds and have cost billions of dollars but it continues to survive and thrive.

The lesson of the book is that there is no silver bullet, no single solution; nets, drugs, new technologies and good intentions cannot succeed on their own.

Without accompanying improvements to countries’ infrastructure in areas like schools, roads, clinics, housing and good governance any short-term gains will be swiftly overturned and newer, more virulent forms of malaria will return with a vengeance.

Landgrabbers

As the world’s population rises, land and water availability dwindles, eco-systems succumb and climate change havoc sets in, the need for secure future food supplies is driving a worldwide agrarian power struggle.

The sheer scale of what’s taking place is matched only by the greed and venality of the players involved – countries, governments, agribusinesses, drug cartels, commodity traders, bankers and chancers all competing for fat profits from a carve-up of continents.

Journalist Fred Pearce spent a year visiting places as far apart as Patagonia and Zimbabwe, Ukraine and Australia to report from the emerging frontlines of the politics of food.

What he found were neo-colonialists being aided and abetted by a parade of despots and dictators, corrupt politicians and cut-throat businessmen. And, as ever, the big losers are the pastoralists, the subsistence farmers and the poorest, marginalized peoples.

So-called “empty lands” are the prime target for much of their attention; bribes are paid, locals are forcibly evicted, promised jobs, schools, hospitals and improvements fail to materialize and the environment takes a beating from which it may never recover.

It was soaring food prices that fueled the revolution in Egypt which led to the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. That may explain why Middle Eastern petrodollars are pouring into farming in Africa: Food insecurity equals political unrest.

But there are other factors too: Rising demand from China and the Far East for meat, an increasing requirement for biofuels from the US and Europe, a need for more rubber plantations as car use climbs in emerging economies and a growing appetite from agribusinesses for soy and palm oil products.

Pearce’s big picture reporting gives the Who, What, Where and Why of what’s taking place in a way that piecemeal mainstream news fails to capture. And, bleak as the landscape is, he doesn’t cloud his writing with hyperbole or environmental evangelism.

Best of all, he gives voice to advocates for alternative agriculture options that don’t destroy the environment, don’t displace people from tribal lands and don’t end in a Malthusian nightmare of famine and death.

age of context

It’s hard not to get caught up in the breathless excitement of Robert Scoble and Shel Israel as they lift the veil on The Next Big Thing that’ll be transforming our lives.

As enthusiastic future-gazers their highly readable book steers us into a world where millions of sensors and interconnected devices work together to anticipate our every need.

It’s a world where a collision of five major forces combine in a technological big bang: mobile, social, big data, sensors and location.

All of them have been with us for a while and, in many cases, have overlapped and been transformative. The authors believe we’re now on a path to a much deeper convergence and one that will fuel an explosion of change in every aspect of life.

Self-driving cars, 3D city modeling, smart textiles, bionic suits, toothbrushes that detect tooth decay – the book is bursting at the seams with examples of where things are headed.

As technology optimists they paint a rosy picture, but they also acknowledge there are major obstacles to overcome.

To get the best from this data-rich world individuals are going to have to surrender a great deal more of their personal privacy – and that’s a problem. Ultimately, they posit, the benefits will outweigh the costs and people will come round.

But even if they do, big issues hang in the air: Who will own the data? Will it be possible to opt-out of collection? How else might the information be used? And by whom?

Like all transforming technology, potential abuses can be as profound as the benefits they bring. The prize in enhancements to many aspects of our lives is huge, but the surrender of personal privacy will give many people cause for concern.

The future may be bright, but it’s also scary, and Scoble and Israel do a good job in framing the boundaries around issues we’re going to have to face up to.

Age of Context

How does the prospect of tucking into tissue-engineered skeletal muscle take you? cows

Hmm, thought not. But if researcher Mark Post has anything to do with it then laboratory-grown meat will be coming to a plate near you.

Post is the Professor of Vascular Physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and is an expert in tissue engineering.

He believes that within our lifetimes we’ll be consuming meat that comes from a petri dish rather than from an animal.

The idea that people will never adopt in-vitro meat, that there is a natural aversion, can be overcome, he believes, by getting good information into the public domain.

It’s why he was at the IQ2 “If” Conference at the Royal Geographical Society last week, explaining that he thinks that lab-grown meat will be part of all our futures.

He starts with the principal that animals are very inefficient at converting vegetable protein to animal protein and that the World Health Organisation expects meat consumption to double by 2050.

Since we’re already using 70% of our arable lands for meat production, we’re heading down an unsustainable track, he argues.

Factor in greenhouse gas emissions from livestock and he believes lab meat, which, he says, can be produced using less land, less water and less energy, has real benefits.

Post uses  stem cell muscle from an animal to start the process in the lab: “We can make strips of muscle out of this and it starts to move – we can electrically stimulate it and it starts to move even more vigorously.

“We start with these very simple strips of scaffold and we grow skeletal muscle on those strips so we can get a 3D structure.

“Of course this doesn’t come for free. You need to add sugars and proteins and fatty acids, but the thing is you can play with it and make it much more efficient than a cow or a pig can do.”

Post also sees the potential to tweak the feeding of the cells to create a healthier product but it’s clear he still has a long way to go and the barrier to uptake isn’t just consumer acceptance.

Taste, texture and protein content are just some of the practical issues he has to overcome if the idea is ever to become a reality.

toozlaI’ve had only the briefest of acquaintances with Toozla, a Russian-based augmented reality outfit that is using location-triggered audio to pep up experiences for tourists, but I like the idea enough to flag it up here.

Unlike most AR apps that overlay text on a camera view, Toozla uses voiced information that is tethered to proximity to places of interest.

There are Wikipedia text entries in the mix too, along with weather from Wunderground and UGC voice notes that can be anchored to a place so others can hear about individual impressions and experiences.

Audio has many advantages over text in this kind of context, both in the amount of information it can convey and because it lets people concentrate on their surroundings rather than looking at a screen, though there’s also an overhead in file download size and the ability to skim content for relevance.

For commercial companies seeking to profit from the tourist trade there are opportunities to incorporate sales and promotion activity linked to location.

There are also sponsorships like that of the Wellcome Foundation’s for a Medical London tour, written and presented by historian Richard Barnett, last year for City Stories Walks

As Broadcastr, another player in this area, states:  “It’s like a museum tour of the entire world.”

The Beta-service, which has just followed up its iPhone release with an Android app, lets users record their own content, create playlists, follow their friends, and share on Facebook.

As ever, extracting value from the mix is the hard part; hearing voices is one thing, but a cacophony isn’t helpful. The winner here will be the service that makes best use of listener time while adding real value to the experience of place.

The BBC has a seam of authoritative, expertly produced, historical audio recordings but rights issues, commercial impact considerations and the enormity of digitizing, filtering, voicing and repackaging the material is likely to stymie progress any time soon and that’s a huge shame.

In a country like the UK, with such an extraordinary history, bringing the past to life is enriching for visitors and likely to be good business too.