Tag: technology (page 1 of 7)

A portal into a decentralised universe

You may recognise Cloudflare’s name from their provision of of ‘snapshots’ of websites that are currently experiencing problems. They do this through what’s called ‘distributed DNS’ which some of the issues around centralisation of the web. I use their 1.1.1.1 DNS service via Blokada on my smartphone to improve speed and privacy.

The ultimate goal, as we seek to move away from proprietary silos run by big tech companies (what I tend to call ‘SaaS with shareholders’), is to re-decentralise the web. I’ve already experimented with this, after speaking at a conference in Barcelona on the subject last October, and experimenting with my own ‘uncensorable’ blog using ZeroNet.

Up to now, however, it hasn’t been easy to jump from the regular ‘ol web (the one you’re used to browsing using https) and the distributed web (DWeb). You need a gateway to use a regular web browser with the DWeb. I set up one of these last year and quickly had to take it down as it was expensive to run!

I’m delighted, therefore, to see that Cloudflare have launched an IPFS gateway. IPFS stands for ‘InterPlanetary File System’ and is a “peer-to-peer hypermedia protocol
to make the web faster, safer, and more open”. It does lots of cool stuff around redundancy and resilience that I won’t go into here. Suffice to say, it’s the future.

Today we’re excited to introduce Cloudflare’s IPFS Gateway, an easy way to access content from the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) that doesn’t require installing and running any special software on your computer. We hope that our gateway, hosted at cloudflare-ipfs.com, will serve as the platform for many new highly-reliable and security-enhanced web applications. The IPFS Gateway is the first product to be released as part of our Distributed Web Gateway project, which will eventually encompass all of our efforts to support new distributed web technologies.

As I mentioned above, one of the issues with having a decentralised blog or website is that people can’t access it on the regular web. This changes that, and hopefully in a way where we don’t just end up with a new type of centralisation:

IPFS gateways are third-party nodes that fetch content from the IPFS network and serve it to you over HTTPS. To use a gateway, you don’t need to download any software or type any code. You simply open up a browser and type in the gateway’s name and the hash of the content you’re looking for, and the gateway will serve the content in your browser.

We’re thinking about how IPFS could be used with the MoodleNet project I’m leading. If we’re building a decentralised resource-centric social network it makes sense for those resources to be accessed in a decentralised way! Developments such as this make that much more likely to happen sometime soon.

Source: Cloudflare blog

(Related: The Guardian on the DWeb, and Fred Wilson’s take on Cloudflare’s IPFS gateway)

Assassination markets now available on the blockchain

I first mentioned so-called ‘assassination markets’ in one of my weeknotes back in 2015 when reporting back on a dinner party conversation. For those unfamiliar, the idea has been around for at least the last twenty years.

Here’s how Wikipedia defines them:

An assassination market is a prediction market where any party can place a bet (using anonymous electronic money and pseudonymous remailers) on the date of death of a given individual, and collect a payoff if they “guess” the date accurately. This would incentivise assassination of individuals because the assassin, knowing when the action would take place, could profit by making an accurate bet on the time of the subject’s death. Because the payoff is for accurately picking the date rather than performing the action of the assassin, it is substantially more difficult to assign criminal liability for the assassination.

Of course, the blockchain is a trustless system, so perfect for this kind of thing. A new platform called Augur is a prediction market and so, of course, one of the first things that appears on there are ‘predictions’ about the death of Donald Trump in 2018:

Everyone knew that it was inevitable that assassination markets would quickly pop up on decentralized prediction market platform Augur, but that doesn’t make the fact that users are now betting on whether U.S. President Donald Trump will be assassinated by the end of the year any less jarring.

Yet this market exists, and, though not the most popular bet on Augur, more than 50 shares have been traded on it as of the time of writing. Similar markets, moreover, exist for a number of other public figures, allowing users to gamble on whether 96-year-old actress Betty White and U.S. Senator John McCain — who has been diagnosed with brain cancer — will survive until Jan. 1, 2019.

This is why ethics in technology are important. There is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ technology:

Now that assassination markets are here, a fierce debate has emerged in cryptocurrency circles over what — if anything — should be done about them, as well as who should be held responsible for these clearly-illegal death markets.

The core issue stems from the fact that, in addition to the pure revulsion that these markets should engender in any decent human being, they also create a financial incentive for someone to place a large bet that a public figure will be assassinated and then murder that person for profit. Consequently, the mere presence of these markets makes it more likely that these events will occur, however slim that increase may be.

Interesting times, indeed.

Source: CCN

Data transfer as a ‘hedge’?

This is an interesting development:

Today, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter joined to announce a new standards initiative called the Data Transfer Project, designed as a new way to move data between platforms. In a blog post, Google described the project as letting users “transfer data directly from one service to another, without needing to download and re-upload it.”

This, of course, would probably not have happened without GDPR. So how does it work?

The existing code for the project is available open-source on GitHub, along with a white paper describing its scope. Much of the codebase consists of “adapters” that can translate proprietary APIs into an interoperable transfer, making Instagram data workable for Flickr and vice versa. Between those adapters, engineers have also built a system to encrypt the data in transit, issuing forward-secret keys for each transaction. Notably, that system is focused on one-time transfers rather than the continuous interoperability enabled by many APIs.

I may be being cynical, but just because something is open source doesn’t mean that it’s a level playing field for everyone. In fact, I’d wager that this is large companies hedging against new entrants to the market.

The project was envisioned as an open-source standard, and many of the engineers involved say a broader shift in governance will be necessary if the standard is successful. “In the long term, we want there to be a consortium of industry leaders, consumer groups, government groups,” says Fair. “But until we have a reasonable critical mass, it’s not an interesting conversation.”

This would be great if it pans out in the way it’s presented in the article. My 20+ years experience on the web, however, would suggest otherwise.

Source: The Verge

Don Norman on human-centred technologies

In this article, Don Norman (famous for his seminal work The Design of Everyday Things) takes to task our technology-centric view of the world:

We need to switch from a technology-centric view of the world to a people-centric one. We should start with people’s abilities and create technology that enhances people’s capabilities: Why are we doing it backwards?

Instead of focusing on what we as humans require, we start with what technology is able to provide. Norman argues that it is us serving technology rather than the other way around:

Just think about your life today, obeying the dictates of technology–waking up to alarm clocks (even if disguised as music or news); spending hours every day fixing, patching, rebooting, inventing work-arounds; answering the constant barrage of emails, tweets, text messages, and instant this and that; being fearful of falling for some new scam or phishing attack; constantly upgrading everything; and having to remember an unwieldly number of passwords and personal inane questions for security, such as the name of your least-liked friend in fourth grade. We are serving the wrong masters.

I particularly like his example of car accidents. We’re fed the line that autonomous vehicles will dramatically cut the number of accidents on our road, but is that right?

Over 90% of industrial and automobile accidents are blamed on human error with distraction listed as a major cause. Can this be true? Look, if 5% of accidents were caused by human error, I would believe it. But when it is 90%, there must be some other reason, namely, that people are asked to do tasks that people should not be doing. Tasks that violate fundamental human abilities.

Consider the words we use to describe the result: human error, distraction, lack of attention, sloppiness–all negative terms, all implying the inferiority of people. Distraction, in particular, is the byword of the day–responsible for everything from poor interpersonal relationships to car accidents. But what does the term really mean?

It’s a good article, particularly at a time when we’re thinking about robots and artificial intelligence replacing humans in the jobs market. It certainly made me think about my technology choices.

Source: Fast Company

 

Blogging in the Fediverse with Write.as

I couldn’t be happier about this news. Write.as is a service that allows you to connect multiple blogs to one online editor. You then compose your post and then decide where to send it.

Matt Baer, the guy behind Write.as, has announced some exciting new functionality:

After much trial and error, I’ve finished basic ActivityPub support on Write.as! (Though it’s not live yet.) I’m very, very excited about reaching this point so I can try out some new ideas.

So far, most developers in the fediverse have been remaking centralized web services with ActivityPub support. There’s PeerTube for video, PixelFed for social photos, Plume or Microblog.pub for blogging, and of course Mastodon and Pleroma for microblogging — among many others. I’ve loved watching the ecosystem grow over the past several months, but I also think more can be done, and getting AP support in Write.as was the first step to making this happen.

Baer references one of his previous posts where, like the main developer of Mastodon, he takes a stand against some things that people have come to expect from centralised services:

If we’re going to build the web world we want, we have to constantly evaluate the pieces we bring with us from the old to the new. With each iteration of an idea on the web we need to question the very nature of certain aspects’ existence in the first place, and determine whether or not every single old thing unimproved should still be with us. It’s the only way we can be sure we’re moving — if not in the direction, at least in some direction that will teach us something.

In Baer’s case, it’s not having public ‘likes’ and in Mastodon’s case it’s not providing the ability to quote toots. Either way, I applaud them for taking a stand.

Baer is planning a new product called Read.as:

Today my idea is to split reading and writing across two ActivityPub-enabled products, Write.as and Read.as. The former will stay focused on writing and publishing; AP support will be almost invisible. Blogs can be followed via the web, RSS, email (soon), or ActivityPub-speaking services (for example, I can follow blogs with my Mastodon account, and then or share any posts to my followers there). Then Read.as would be the read-only counterpart; you go there when you want to stare at your screen for a while and read something interesting. It would be minimally social, avoid interrupting your life, and preserve your privacy — just like Write.as.

Great, great news!

Source: Write.as

Problems with the present and future of work are of our own making

This is a long essay in which the RSA announces that, along with its partners (one of which, inevitably, is Google) it’s launching the Future Work Centre. I’ve only selected quotations from the first section here.

From autonomous vehicles to cancer-detecting algorithms, and from picking and packing machines to robo-advisory tools used in financial services, every corner of the economy has begun to feel the heat of a new machine age. The RSA uses the term ‘radical technologies’ to describe these innovations, which stretch from the shiny and much talked about, including artificial intelligence and robotics, to the prosaic but equally consequential, such as smartphones and digital platforms.

I highly recommend reading Adam Greenfield’s book Radical Technologies: the design of everyday life, if you haven’t already. Greenfield isn’t beholden to corporate partners, and lets rip.

What is certain is that the world of work will evolve as a direct consequence of the invention and adoption of radical technologies — and in more ways than we might imagine. Alongside eliminating and creating jobs, these innovations will alter how workers are recruited, monitored, organised and paid. Companies like HireVue (video interviewing), Percolata (schedule setting) and Veriato (performance monitoring) are eager to reinvent all aspects of the workplace.

Indeed, and a lot of what’s going on is compliance and surveillance of workers smuggled in through the back door while people focus on ‘innovation’.

The main problems outlined with the current economy which is being ‘disrupted’ by technology are:

  1. Declining wages (in real terms)
  2. Economic insecurity (gig economy, etc.)
  3. Working conditions
  4. Bullshit jobs
  5. Work-life balance

Taken together, these findings paint a picture of a dysfunctional labour market — a world of work that offers little in the way of material security, let alone satisfaction. But that may be going too far. Overall, most workers enjoy what they do and relish the careers they have established. The British Social Attitudes survey found that twice as many people in 2015 as in 1989 strongly agreed they would enjoy having a job even if their financial circumstances did not require it.

The problem is not with work per se but rather with how it is orchestrated in the modern economy, and how rewards are meted out. As a society we have a vision of what work could and should look like — well paid, protective, meaningful, engaging — but the reality too often falls short.

I doubt the RSA would ever say it without huge caveats, but the problem is neoliberalism. It’s all very well looking to the past for examples of technological disruption, but that was qualitatively different from what’s going on now. Organisations can run on a skeleton staff and make obscene profits for a very few people.

I feel like warnings such as ‘the robots are coming’ and ‘be careful not to choose an easily-automated occupation!’ are a smokescreen for decisions that people are making about the kind of society they want to live in. It seems like that’s one where most of us (the ‘have nots’) are expendable, while the 0.01% (the ‘haves’) live in historically-unparalleled luxury.

In summary, the lives of workers will be shaped by more technologies than AI and robotics, and in more ways than through the loss of jobs.

Fears surrounding automaton should be taken seriously. Yet anxiety over job losses should not distract us from the subtler impacts of radical technologies, including on recruitment practices, employee monitoring and people’s work-life balance. Nor should we become so fixated on AI and robotics that we lose sight of the conventional technologies bringing about change in the present moment.

Exactly. Let’s fix 2018 before we start thinking about 2040, eh?

Source: The RSA

Attention scarcity as an existential threat

This post is from Albert Wenger, a partner a New York-based early stage VC firm focused on investing in disruptive networks. It’s taken from his book World After Capital, currently in draft form.

In this section, Wenger is concerned with attention scarcity, which he believes to be both a threat to humanity, and an opportunity for us.

On the threat side, for example, we are not working nearly hard enough on how to recapture CO2 and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Or on monitoring asteroids that could strike earth, and coming up with ways of deflecting them. Or containing the outbreak of the next avian flu: we should have a lot more collective attention dedicated to early detection and coming up with vaccines and treatments.

The reason the world’s population is so high is almost entirely due to the technological progress we’ve made. We’re simply better at keeping human beings alive.

On the opportunity side, far too little human attention is spent on environmental cleanup, free educational resources, and basic research (including the foundations of science), to name just a few examples. There are so many opportunities we could dedicate attention to that over time have the potential to dramatically improve quality of life here on Earth not just for humans but also for other species.

Interestingly, he comes up with a theory as to why we haven’t heard from any alien species yet:

I am proposing this as a (possibly new) explanation for the Fermi Paradox, which famously asks why we have not yet detected any signs of intelligent life elsewhere in our rather large universe. We now even know that there are plenty of goldilocks planets available that could harbor life forms similar to those on Earth. Maybe what happens is that all civilizations get far enough to where they generate huge amounts of information, but then they get done in by attention scarcity. They collectively take their eye off the ball of progress and are not prepared when something really bad happens such as a global pandemic.

Attention scarcity, then, has the opportunity to become an existential threat to our species. Pay attention to the wrong things and we could either neglect to avoid a disaster, or cause one of our own making.

Source: Continuations

Our irresistible screens of splendour

Apple is touting a new feature in the latest version of iOS that helps you reduce the amount of time you spend on your smartphone. Facebook are doing something similar. As this article in The New York Times notes, that’s no accident:

There’s a reason tech companies are feeling this tension between making phones better and worrying they are already too addictive. We’ve hit what I call Peak Screen.

For much of the last decade, a technology industry ruled by smartphones has pursued a singular goal of completely conquering our eyes. It has given us phones with ever-bigger screens and phones with unbelievable cameras, not to mention virtual reality goggles and several attempts at camera-glasses.

The article even gives the example of Augmented Reality LEGO play sets which actively encourage you to stop building and spend more time on screens!

Tech has now captured pretty much all visual capacity. Americans spend three to four hours a day looking at their phones, and about 11 hours a day looking at screens of any kind.

So tech giants are building the beginning of something new: a less insistently visual tech world, a digital landscape that relies on voice assistants, headphones, watches and other wearables to take some pressure off our eyes.

[…]

Screens are insatiable. At a cognitive level, they are voracious vampires for your attention, and as soon as you look at one, you are basically toast.

It’s not enough to tell people not to do things. Technology can be addictive, just like anything else, so we need to find better ways of achieving similar ends.

But in addition to helping us resist phones, the tech industry will need to come up with other, less immersive ways to interact with digital world. Three technologies may help with this: voice assistants, of which Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant are the best, and Apple’s two innovations, AirPods and the Apple Watch.

All of these technologies share a common idea. Without big screens, they are far less immersive than a phone, allowing for quick digital hits: You can buy a movie ticket, add a task to a to-do list, glance at a text message or ask about the weather without going anywhere near your Irresistible Screen of Splendors.

The issue I have is that it’s going to take tightly-integrated systems to do this well, at least at first. So the chances are that Apple or Google will create an ecosystem that only works with their products, providing another way to achieve vendor lock-in.

Source: The New York Times

Higher Education and blockchain

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the most useful applications of blockchain technologies are incredibly boring. That goes in education, too.

This post by Chris Fellingham considers blockchain in the context of Higher Education, and in particular credentialing:

The short pitch is that as jobs and education go digital, we need digital credentials for our education and those need to be trustworthy and automisable. Decentralised trust systems may well be the future but I don’t see that it solves a core problem. Namely that the main premium market for Higher Education Edtech is geared twards graduates in developed countries and that market — does not have a problem of trust in its credentials — it has a problem of credibility in its courses. People don’t know what it means to have done a MOOC/Specialization/MicroMasters in X which undermines the market system for it. Shoring up the credential is a second order problem to proving the intrinsic value of the course itself.

“Decentralised trust systems” is what blockchain aficionados refer to, but what they actually mean is removing trust from the equation. So, in hiring decisions, for example, trust is removed from the equation in favour of cryptographic proof.

Fellingham mentions someone called ‘Smolenski’ who, after a little bit of digging, must be Natalie Smolenski, who works for Learning Machine. That organisation is a driving force, with MIT, behind the Blockcerts standard for blockchain-based digital credentialing.

Smolenski however, is a believer, and in numerous elegant essays has argued blockchain is the latest paradigm shift in trust-based technologies. The thesis puts trust based technologies as a central driver of human development. Kinship was the first ‘trust technology’, followed by language and cultural development. Things really got going with organised religion which was the early modern driver — enabling proto-legal systems and financial systems to emerge. Total strangers could now conduct economic transactions by putting their trust in local laws (a mutually understand system for transactions) in the knowledge that it would be enforced by a trusted third party — the state. Out of this emerged market economies and currencies.

Like Fellingham, I’m not particularly enamoured with this teleological ‘grand narrative’ approach to history, of which blockchain believers do tend to be overly-fond. I’m pretty sure that human history hasn’t been ‘building’ in any way towards anything, particularly something that involves less trust between human beings.

Blockchain at this moment is a kind of religion. It’s based on a hope of things to come:

Blockchain — be it in credential or currency form …could well be a major — if not paradigmatic technology — but it has its own logic and fundamentally suits those who use it best — much as social networks turned out to be fertile grounds for fake news. For that reason alone, we should be far more cautious about a shift to blockchain in Higher Education — lest like fake news — it takes an imperfect system and makes it worse.

Indeed. Who on earth would want wants to hard code the way things are right now in Higher Education? If your answer is ‘blockchain-based credentials’, then I’m not sure you really understand what the question is.

Source: Chris Fellingham (via Stephen Downes)

F*** off Google

This is interesting, given that Google was welcomed with open arms in London:

Google plans to implant a “Google Campus” in Kreuzberg, Berlin. We, as a decentralized network of people are committed to not letting our beloved city be taken over by this law- and tax-evading company that is building a dystopian future. Let’s kick Google out of our neighborhood and lives!

What I find interesting is that not only are people organising against Google, they’ve also got a wiki to inform people and help wean them off Google services.

The problem that I have with ‘replacing’ Google services is that it’s usually non-trivial for less technical users to achieve. As the authors of the wiki point out:

It is though dangerous to think in terms of “alternatives”, like the goal was to reach equivalence to what Google offers (and risk to always lag behind). In reality what we want is *better* services than the ones of Google, because they would rest on *better* principles, such as decentralization/distribution of services, end-to-end encryption, uncompromising free/libre software, etc.

While presenting these “alternatives” or “replacements” here, we must keep in mind that the true goal is to achieve proper distribution/decentralization of information and communication, and empower people to understand and control where their information goes.

The two biggest problems with the project of removing big companies such as Google from our lives, are: (i) using web services is a social thing, and (ii) they provide such high quality services for so little financial cost.

Whether you’re using a social network to connect with friends or working with colleagues on a collaborative document, your choices aren’t solely yours. We negotiate the topography of the web at the same time as weaving the social fabric of society. It’s not enough to give people alternatives, there has to be some leadership to go with it.

Source: Fuck off Google wiki