Tag: literacy

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

From Homer to texting and Twitter

I love everything about this post:

Jason eventually got me to see that “Ask Dr. Time” didn’t have to be an advice column in a conventional sense. What if readers had problems that didn’t require common sense or finely honed interpersonal skills, but an ability to make sense of abstruse reasoning? What if they didn’t need a fancy Watson but an armchair Wittgenstein? What if kottke.org hosted the first metaphysical advice columnist? That proposition is still absurd, but it’s absurd in an interesting way. And “absurd in an interesting way” is what Dr. Time is all about. Not practical solutions, but philosophical entanglements and disentanglings. That I could do.

Quoting from the introduction of Emily Wilson’s  translation of Homer’s The Odyssey:

Subsequent studies, building on the work of Parry and Lord, have shown that there are marked differences in the ways that oral and literate cultures think about memory, originality, and repetition. In highly literate cultures, there is a tendency to dismiss repetitive or formulaic discourse as cliche; we think of it as boring or lazy writing. In primarily oral cultures, repetition tends to be much more highly valued. Repeated phrases, stories, or tropes can be preserved to some extent over many generations without the use of writing, allowing people in an oral culture to remember their own past. In Greek mythology, Memory (Mnemosyne) is said to be the mother of the Muses, because poetry, music, and storytelling are all imagined as modes by which people remember the times before they were born.

In my doctoral thesis (and subsequent book), I talked about the work of Walter Ong and ‘secondary orality’, which Dr. Time also introduces here:

What Ong helped conceptualize and popularize, especially in his book Orality and Literacy, was that in cultures with no tradition of literacy, orality had a fundamentally different character from those where literacy was dominant. It’s different again in cultures where literacy is known but scarce.

Answering the question of whether texting and Twitter is a return to a more ‘oral’ form of communicating, Dr. Time answers in the negative:

The only form of genuine speech that’s genuinely visual and not auditory is sign language. And sign language is speech-like in pretty much every way imaginable: it’s ephemeral, it’s interactive, there’s no record, the signs are fluid. But even most sign language is at least in part chirographic, i.e., dependent on writing and written symbols. At least, the sign languages we use today: although our spoken/vocal languages are pretty chirographic too.


So tweets and text messages aren’t oral. They’re secondarily literate. Wait, that sounds horrible! How’s this: they’re artifacts and examples of secondary literacy. They’re what literacy looks like after television, the telephone, and the application of computing technologies to those communication forms. Just as orality isn’t the same after you’ve introduced writing, and manuscript isn’t the same after you’ve produced print, literacy isn’t the same once you have networked orality. In this sense, Twitter is the necessary byproduct of television.t

The author finally gets around to voice assistants such as Alexa and Siri towards the end. I’ve already quoted enough, so I encourage you to check it out in full.

Source: kottke.org