This Way Up for Saturday 8 April 2017

The Attention Merchants, selling your mobile data, the walking bike that's changing lives, and taking penicillin while pregnant: are there risks?

Your attention - the capture and sale


Photo: (Flickr user Conor CC BY-SA 2.0)

Attracting your attention and then keeping it has become a big business. From entertainment to the media, from Google to Facebook... screens persistently compete for our eyeballs.

Tim Wu

Tim Wu Photo: (Supplied)

But the market for our attention isn't new, it's been developing for well over a century. Before clickbait, there were tabloid newspapers laden with lurid headlines and risque images.

Now the newspapers of yesteryear are becoming the 'Daily You' - curated content you select on your newsfeed, posts shared on on your timeline, tweets, snapchats and vines.

Columbia University professor Tim Wu charts the history of how our time and attention has been harvested and sold in his book The Attention Merchants.

Tech news: Unlimited mobile broadband plans & your mobile data for sale

Unlimited mobile broadband plans come to NZ - but there are a few fish hooks you need to be aware of.

Also, as more of us use our mobile phones to navigate our lives, the (hopefully anonymised!) data from these devices has become a seriously valuable commodity. We chat about an interesting local use of mobile phone data to manage some of the country's tourism attractions. 

This Way Up's regular tech head Peter Griffin has bits and bytes from the world of technology.

The walking bike that's changing lives

Multiple Sclerosis or MS is a progressive and incurable disease of the central nervous system that impairs movement and other body functions.  About 4,000 New Zealanders have it, and Christine O'Sullivan is one of them.

She got her diagnosis a decade ago. Faced with a gradual deterioration in her movement and motor skills, she's rebelling against the traditional approach of sitting in a mobility device like a wheelchair or a mobility scooter to get about.  Staying seated just seemed like it made it more difficult to speak to people and to stay active, fit and sociable.

So instead she's using a walking bike called the Alinker, invented by a Dutch designer called Barbara Alink for her own mother.

The Alinker is a pretty unusual looking yellow tricycle. It's got two wheels at the front and a smaller one at the back, the rider leans on a seat and then scoots along as there are no pedals. Plus, this trike folds up and fits in the back seat of a car.

Taking penicillin while pregnant could affect your baby's brain

Molecular model of Penicillin by Dorothy Hodgkin, c.1945

Molecular model of Penicillin by Dorothy Hodgkin, c.1945 Photo: (Science Museum London Science and Society Picture Library CC BY-SA 2.0)

A study on mice suggests that taking the common antibiotic penicillin when pregnant could alter the brain chemistry of your offspring. 

Dr Chris Smith of The Naked Scientists tells This Way Up's Simon Morton about research conducted by McMaster University researcher John Bienenstock and his colleagues, published in the journal Nature Communications.

"Penicillin has saved millions of lives since it's antibacterial properties were realised in in patients in 1942", Dr Smith said. "Now, literally thousands of tonnes of antibiotics like penicillin are used every year around the world. But could there be consequences for a developing baby's brain if its mother takes antibiotics during her pregnancy?"

The researchers found that animals treated with penicillin during their pregnancy gave birth to young with altered brain chemistry, disturbed behaviour and a disrupted microbiome, the colony of bacteria living in the animals' gut. 

In particular, the scientists detected "profound and significant" behavioural changes in the animals born to antibiotic-treated mothers, as they became more aggressive and less sociable when compared with control animals. They also detected changes in the blood-brain barrier, greater inflammation in the frontal part of the brain, as well as altered nerve transmitter chemistry.

The researchers attribute the results to changes in the microbiome, but say they do not yet know if the results in mice will translate to humans.

Also, scientists have detected an atmosphere around an Earth-sized planet about 40 light years away.