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Issue [#316]: Is that better? 🙄 🙄 🙄

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Charity is no substitute for justice

The always-brilliant Audrey Watters eviscerates the latest project from a white, male billionaire to ‘fix education’. Citing Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ plan to open a series of “Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities” where “the child will be the customer”, Audrey comments:

The assurance that “the child will be the customer” underscores the belief – shared by many in and out of education reform and education technology – that education is simply a transaction: an individual’s decision-making in a “marketplace of ideas.” (There is no community, no public responsibility, no larger civic impulse for early childhood education here. It’s all about privateschools offering private, individual benefits.)

As I’ve said on many occasions, everyone wakes up with cool ideas to change the world. The difference is that you or I would have to run it through many, many filters to get the funding to implement it. Those filters , hopefully, kill 99% of batshit-crazy ideas. Billionaires, in the other hand, can just speak and fund things into existence, no matter how damaging and I’ll thought-out the ideas behind them happen to be.

[Teaching] is a field in which a third of employeesalready qualify for government assistance. And now Jeff Bezos, a man whose own workers also rely on these same low-income programs, wants to step in – not as a taxpayer, oh no, but as a philanthropist. Honestly, he could have a more positive impact here by just giving those workers a raise. (Or, you know, by paying taxes.)

This is the thing. We can do more and better together than we can do apart. The ideas of the many, honed over years, lead to better outcomes than the few thinking alone.

For all the flaws in the public school system, it’s important to remember: there is no accountability in billionaires’ educational philanthropy.

And, as W. B. Yeats famously never said, charity is no substitute for justice.

Whatever your moral and political views, accountability is something that cuts across the divide. I should imagine there are some reading this who send their kids to private schools and don’t particularly see the problem with this. Isn’t it just another example of competition within ‘the market’?

The trouble with that kind of thinking, at least from my perspective, is twofold. First, it assumes that education is a private instead of a public good. Second, that it’s OK to withhold money from society and then use that to subsidise the education of the already-privileged.

Source: Hack Education

"Creativity is intelligence having fun." (Albert Einstein)

Audiobooks vs reading

Although I listen to a lot of podcasts (here’s my OPML file) I don’t listen to many audiobooks. That’s partly because I never feel up-to-date with my podcast listening, but also because I often read before going to sleep. It’s much more difficult to find your place again if you drift off while listening than while reading!

This article in TIME magazine (is it still a ‘magazine’?) looks at the research into whether listening to an audiobook is like reading using your eyes. Well, first off, it would seem that there’s no difference in recall of facts given a non-fiction text:

For a 2016 study, Rogowsky put her assumptions to the test. One group in her study listened to sections of Unbroken, a nonfiction book about World War II by Laura Hillenbrand, while a second group read the same parts on an e-reader. She included a third group that both read and listened at the same time. Afterward, everyone took a quiz designed to measure how well they had absorbed the material. “We found no significant differences in comprehension between reading, listening, or reading and listening simultaneously,” Rogowsky says.

However, the difficulty here is that there’s already an observed discrepancy in recall between dead-tree books and e-books. So perhaps audiobooks are as good as e-books, but both aren’t as good as printed matter?

There’s a really interesting point made in the article about how dead-tree books allow for a slight ‘rest’ while you’re reading:

If you’re reading, it’s pretty easy to go back and find the point at which you zoned out. It’s not so easy if you’re listening to a recording, Daniel says. Especially if you’re grappling with a complicated text, the ability to quickly backtrack and re-examine the material may aid learning, and this is likely easier to do while reading than while listening. “Turning the page of a book also gives you a slight break,” he says. This brief pause may create space for your brain to store or savor the information you’re absorbing.

This reminds me of an article on Lifehacker a few years ago that quoted a YouTuber who swears by reading a book while also listening to it:

First of all, it combines two senses…so you end up with really good comprehension while being really efficient at the same time. …Another possibly even more important benefit is…it keeps you going. So you’re not going back and rereading things, you’re not taking all kinds of unnecessary breaks and pauses, your eyes aren’t running around all the time, and you’re not getting distracted every two minutes.

Since switching to an open source e-reader, I’m no longer using the Amazon Kindle ecosystem so much these days. If I were, I’d be experimenting with their WhisperSync technology that allows you to either pick up where you left up with one medium — or, indeed, use both at the same time.

Source: TIME / Lifehacker

What the EU’s copyright directive means in practice

The EU is certainly coming out swinging against Big Tech this year. Or at least it thinks it is. Yesterday, the European Parliament voted in favour of three proposals, outlined by the EFF’s indefatigable Cory Doctorow as:

1. Article 13: the Copyright Filters. All but the smallest platforms will have to defensively adopt copyright filters that examine everything you post and censor anything judged to be a copyright infringement.

2. Article 11: Linking to the news using more than one word from the article is prohibited unless you’re using a service that bought a license from the news site you want to link to. News sites can charge anything they want for the right to quote them or refuse to sell altogether, effectively giving them the right to choose who can criticise them. Member states are permitted, but not required, to create exceptions and limitations to reduce the harm done by this new right.

3. Article 12a: No posting your own photos or videos of sports matches. Only the “organisers” of sports matches will have the right to publicly post any kind of record of the match. No posting your selfies, or short videos of exciting plays. You are the audience, your job is to sit where you’re told, passively watch the game and go home.

Music Week pointed out that Article 13 is particularly problematic for artists:

While the Copyright Directive covers a raft of digital issues, a sticking point within the music industry had been the adoption of Article 13 which seeks to put the responsibility on online platforms to police copyright in advance of posting user generated content on their services, either by restricting posts or by obtaining full licenses for copyrighted material.

The proof of the pudding, as The Verge points out, will be in the interpretation and implementation by EU member states:

However, those backing these provisions say the arguments above are the result of scaremongering by big US tech companies, eager to keep control of the web’s biggest platforms. They point to existing laws and amendments to the directive as proof it won’t be abused in this way. These include exemptions for sites like GitHub and Wikipedia from Article 13, and exceptions to the “link tax” that allow for the sharing of mere hyperlinks and “individual words” describing articles without constraint.

I can’t help but think this is a ham-fisted way of dealing with a non-problem. As Doctorow also states, part of the issue here is the assumption that competition in a free market is at the core of creativity. I’d argue that’s untrue, that culture is built by respectfully appropriating and building on the work of others. These proposals, as they currently stand (and as I currently understand them) actively undermine internet culture.

Source: Music Week / EFF / The Verge

The Amazon Echo as an anatomical map of human labor, data and planetary resources

This map of what happens when you interact with a digital assistant such as the Amazon Echo is incredible. The image is taken from a length piece of work which is trying to bring attention towards the hidden costs of using such devices.

With each interaction, Alexa is training to hear better, to interpret more precisely, to trigger actions that map to the user’s commands more accurately, and to build a more complete model of their preferences, habits and desires. What is required to make this possible? Put simply: each small moment of convenience – be it answering a question, turning on a light, or playing a song – requires a vast planetary network, fueled by the extraction of non-renewable materials, labor, and data. The scale of resources required is many magnitudes greater than the energy and labor it would take a human to operate a household appliance or flick a switch. A full accounting for these costs is almost impossible, but it is increasingly important that we grasp the scale and scope if we are to understand and govern the technical infrastructures that thread through our lives.

It’s a tour de force. Here’s another extract:

When a human engages with an Echo, or another voice-enabled AI device, they are acting as much more than just an end-product consumer. It is difficult to place the human user of an AI system into a single category: rather, they deserve to be considered as a hybrid case. Just as the Greek chimera was a mythological animal that was part lion, goat, snake and monster, the Echo user is simultaneously a consumer, a resource, a worker, and a product. This multiple identity recurs for human users in many technological systems. In the specific case of the Amazon Echo, the user has purchased a consumer device for which they receive a set of convenient affordances. But they are also a resource, as their voice commands are collected, analyzed and retained for the purposes of building an ever-larger corpus of human voices and instructions. And they provide labor, as they continually perform the valuable service of contributing feedback mechanisms regarding the accuracy, usefulness, and overall quality of Alexa’s replies. They are, in essence, helping to train the neural networks within Amazon’s infrastructural stack.

Well worth a read, especially alongside another article in Bloomberg about what they call ‘oral literacy’ but which I referred to in my thesis as ‘oracy’:

Should the connection between the spoken word and literacy really be so alien to us? After all, starting in the 1950s, basic literacy training in elementary schools in the United States has involved ‘phonics.’ And what is phonics but a way of attaching written words to the sounds they had been or could become? The theory grew out of the belief that all those lines of text on the pages of schoolbooks had become too divorced from their sounds; phonics was intended to give new readers a chance to recognize written language as part of the world of language they already knew.

The technological landscape is reforming what it means to be literate in the 21st century. Interestingly, some of that is a kind of a return to previous forms of human interaction that we used to value a lot more.

Sources: Anatomy of AI and Bloomberg

"Those who work much, do not work hard."

(Henry David Thoreau)

6 things that the best jobs have in common

Look at the following list and answer honestly the extent to which your current role, either as an employee or freelancer, matches up:

  1. Work that is engaging
  2. Work that benefits other people
  3. Work that you’re good at (and feel valued for)
  4. Flexibility in how and where you work
  5. A lack of major negatives (e.g. long commute, unpredictable working hours)
  6. The chance for meaningful collaboration

I would wager that very few people could claim to be enjoying all six. I’m pretty close in my current position, I reckon, but of course it’s easy to quickly forget how privileged I am.

It’s easier to see how remote positions fulfil points #4 and #5 than being employed in a particular place to work certain hours. On the other hand, the second part of #3 and #6 can be difficult remotely.

My advice? Focus on on #1 and #2 as they’re perhaps the most difficult to engineer. As an employee, look for interesting jobs with companies that have a pro-social mission. And if you’re a freelancer, once you’re financially secure, seek out gigs with similar.

Source: Fast Company


Image by WOCinTech Chat used under a CC BY license

"It appear[s] like a calm existence [but] the turmoil is invisible.”

(Maira Kalman)

Simple sustainable stories

Some people are easy to follow online. They have one social media account to which they post regularly, and back that up with a single website where they expand on those points.

Stowe Boyd, whose work I’ve followed (or attempted to follow) for a few years now, is not one of these people. In fact, the number of platforms he tried earlier this year prompted me to get in touch with him to ask just how many platforms now had his subscribers’ email addresses.

Ironically, it was only last week that I decided to support Stowe’s latest venture via Substack. However, in a post yesterday he explains that he’s going ‘back to square one’:

I won’t recapitulate the many transitions that have gone on in my search for the ‘right’ newsletter/subscription technologies over the past year. But I have come to the conclusion that I am more interested in growing the community of Work Futures readers than I am in trying to make cash flow from it.

The thing I’ve learned about posting things to the internet over the last twenty years is that nobody cares. People support things that reflect who they believe themselves to be right now. That changes over time.

So if you’re putting things online, you have to make sure it works for you. Even the most fun jobs imaginable can become… something else if you focus too much on what a fickle audience wants.

As I said, I am motivated to take these steps in part by the desire to simplify my daily activities, and shelve work patterns that suck time. But I am equally motivated by making the discourse around these topics more open, while encouraging people to support Work Futures, but in that order of importance.

Openness always wins. You can support Stowe’s work via donations, and my work via Patreon.

Source: Work Futures