Alone in the dark

The internet knows no boundaries. Oh, wait …

Julie Starr


I have two lives, technologically speaking. The one where I work at home and the one where I work in an institution. They are poles apart and it worries me.

When I work at home I use a mix of web browsers and toolbar add-ons that help me manage information—a password manager and applets that let me bookmark web pages, subscribe to RSS feeds, share links, shorten URLs and post to Twitter.

I use Skype for conference calls and interviews, and Call Recorder to record those interviews. I use Things to manage my tasks, Tweetdeck and Hootsuite to manage my tweets, VLC to watch videos and podcasts.

Facebook, YouTube, Google Docs, Feedly, Basecamp and other sites occupy a tab each in one or other of my browsers most days. I have conversations through all of them, as happy to respond to a Facebook or Skype message as I am to an email, text or tweet.

These are tools I’ve acquired over time that help me work efficiently online, all recommended by colleagues and downloaded on the spot. Because of these tools I can base myself in Raglan, build a website with a team of people in Wellington, work on layout projects for a company in Germany and more.

But when I work in my office at a polytech it’s a very different picture—as it is in many academic, government and corporate organisations. While staplers, paper clips and filing cabinets are in plentiful supply, when it comes to equivalent web tools there’s comparatively little on offer.

The polytech, like many large organisations, is predominantly a Microsoft shop. We get Internet Explorer as default and can ask for Firefox but it tends to baffle the helpdesk. Installing unapproved applications is forbidden.

I‘m prevented from installing my toolbar add-ons, although I can email the helpdesk who will install those few on the approved list. Facebook, YouTube and Trade Me are blocked and we have to get special permission for media students—those who want to be journalists and PR consultants and videographers—to use these sites in class. Skype cannot be used on campus, not even on my own laptop in the wi-fi zone, so a ten-minute conference call can take an hour out of my day as I head into town to find a quiet wi-fi cafe.

It feels like we’re working in the dark.

There are good reasons for some of this caution and I don’t mean to pick on Wintec, the polytech I work at, because it’s not alone and it has some terrific resources for students and staff. In fact, this column was triggered by a conversation I had with a government employee about his workplace frustrations.

But I worry that staff, and students, are being put at a competitive disadvantage.

Plenty of organisations ban what they see as time-wasting websites … But Facebook is not just a place to play Farmville. Trade Me is not just a place to shop. YouTube is not just for puppy videos

Business consultant Lance Wiggs agrees: “It's particularly concerning for people inside academic environments … When I was at business school in the USA in 1996 we, like every other major university, had a very fast and completely open pipe to the internet. It's still the same today—and that's why Facebook came out of Harvard, and Google and many others from Stanford.

“Where will our internet entrepreneurs, or social or media entrepreneurs for that matter, come from if we don’t unleash the tools?”

Wintec technical services team leader Gary Templeton has fielded many frustrated phone calls from me over the past two years, with perfect patience every time. He’s sympathetic but points out that “it’s a balance between security and usability”. With downloads can come malware that cause very expensive problems. Just ask Waikato Hospital which recently had to pull 3,000 or so computers offline for up to four days while it purged the Conficker virus.

Templeton’s gripe with Skype is about the way it seeks out the fastest connection it can find, which will generally be Wintec’s fast international pipes if a user is nearby and a port available: “It reduces available bandwidth for real teaching and learning.” And, he says, when thousands of staff and students browse YouTube at the same time the internet chokes to a maddeningly slow speed.

Okay. What about blocking social sites?

That, Templeton says, was an HR decision. At one point, staff clocked up two million visits to Trade Me in a fortnight. I gather a dating site wasn’t far behind. Once HR was informed, “They said, ‘look, just shut it down.’ ”

That response is not atypical. Plenty of organisations ban what they see as time-wasting websites. The reasoning goes that if staff are spending that much time on Trade Me they can’t be doing their jobs.

I wonder, though, how many managers measure productivity before and after a ban to test the hypothesis. I wonder if they weigh any gains against opportunity costs. I know there are a few surveys kicking around that suggest people spend more time on Facebook at work than they do at home, but most don’t seem terribly robust.

I don’t doubt some people spend too much work or class time scouring Trade Me for bargains or looking for a date. But they can just as easily kill time checking out 1-Day or Grab A Seat or daydreaming or planning their weekend or, ahem, using proxies to get to the sites they’re banned from.

I suspect some aren’t terribly engaged anyway and routinely sleepwalk their way to home-time. Others just want to book their holiday flights and get back to work.

More importantly, Facebook is not just a place to play Farmville, it’s a business promotion tool. Trade Me is not just a place to shop, it’s a place to take the nation’s pulse and see what people care about—the stuff that journalism and PR students find useful. YouTube is not just for puppy videos; it’s for finding and sharing teaching aids.

I’m often asked to speak about the potential of social networks and the global reach afforded by collaborative tools such as wikis, Basecamp and Skype. But there’s little point in talking about web tools to students who don’t get to use them.

As Wiggs says: “We should be setting the standard for how to behave with these tools, not banning them and pretending they do not exist.”

We talk a lot about needing faster, fatter broadband in New Zealand. It’s part of that conversation about improving our national productivity and competitiveness.

I’m all for it. I’d like ubiquitous, free wi-fi too while we’re at it. Or at least wi-fi that’s easy to pay for—without having to navigate logins and credit card transactions every time I want a few minutes of connectivity on the road.

But all the connectivity in the world won’t help if two-thirds of us aren’t allowed to use it between nine and five.

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