There is a real generational difference in the way people adopt and exploit technology in our increasingly interconnected society, Professor Peter Grindrod will tell the Royal Academy of Engineering this week when he gives a lecture on Wednesday 28 November as part of the Academy’s Vodafone series.

Professor Grindrod, Director of the Centre for the Mathematics of Human Behaviour at the University of Reading, models the societal impacts and consequences of our 24/7 digital communication. Young people have very few issues with privacy of information compared with older generations, who wish either to impose a legal solution of more detailed legislation or a technical solution of enhanced verification procedures. “Young people don’t have identity baggage,” he says, “they ensure privacy through their behaviour and meaning, or by using jargon. Humans do this all the time in normal conversation where one group wants to keep information to itself.”

However, he says social networking, search and communications applications have also dramatically changed people’s attitudes to the value of services: “Our ethics have changed: we have learnt to love ‘free’ and indeed feel that we are entitled to free content – we accept the fact that social networking companies, and digital giants, need to make money from our participation from others; yet we anticipate we will be the beneficiaries of further investment in R&D and novel feature functionality. This business model is intuitive now: yet it collides directly with old world notions of content rights where the consumer pays.”

He will talk about analysis of social networks and Twitter data, in identifying the role of influential individuals. “This is essential for the future of digital media marketing, in order to identify the strategy and returns on social media marketing: and indeed to infer when it is and is not appropriate to invest a larger proportion of this into the media mix.”

On the other side of the coin, he will address the role of instantaneous communication in radicalisation and facilitating terrorism. “Events in one location can have a major impact on audiences in other parts of the world; hardening attitudes and creating polarised reactions,” he says. “Now we have a digital society within which everybody is both close up to and far away from everybody else. The Vietnam War effect, where attitudes about the military involvement and its raison d'etre were shaped in the living rooms of America, is now a business that operates on a 24-7 basis.”

He draws an analogy of the ‘journey to radicalisation’ of a potential terrorist with a game of snakes and ladders – the journey mirrors progress around the board in larger or smaller steps, sometimes accelerated by ladders. This equates to a distinct tipping point along the trajectory of being radicalised – a sudden event that narrows the individual’s world view and hardens their attitudes. “The task for the community at large, and its political leaders, is to avoid creating ‘ladders’ whilst at the same time helping create the conditions where ‘snakes’ can be formed to take people off the board,” he says.

Professor Grindrod and his colleagues have taken this concept on into mathematical modelling – they believe this may be able to help most in looking at the ways that events modulate behaviour, via the creation of ladders for people on a journey or a desire to become more actively involved in a social movement or being prepared to sacrifice their own personal identity for a wider cause. “Our research has looked at some of these event drivers correlating activity on the world wide web associated with specific events,” he says. “It indicates that there are relationships out there in cyber space that might form the basis of more detailed models.”

Notes for editors

  1. Professor Peter Grindrod CBE will speak on Wednesday 28 November on Mobile phones, Society and Interconnectivity as part of the Vodafone Lecture series in Mobile Telecommunications and Networks.
  2. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering Tel. 020 7766 0636; email: Jane Sutton