Issue #384: Free Edition
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Hello!

How's it going? What a busy week! I hope yours treated you kindly.

Saturday shiftings

xkcd: coronavirus polling
I think this is the latest I've published my weekly roundup of links. That's partly because of an epic family walk we did today, but also because of work, and because of the length and quality of the things I bookmarked to come back to...

Enjoy!

FC97: Portal Economics

Most of us are still trapped in the mental coordinates of a world that isn’t waiting for us on the other side. You can see this in the language journalists are still using. The coronavirus is a ‘strategic surprise’ and we’re still very much in the ‘fog of war,’ dealing with the equivalent of an ‘alien invasion’ or an ‘unexpected asteroid strike.’ As I said back in March though, this is not a natural disaster, like an earthquake, a one-off event from which we can rebuild. It’s not a war or a financial crisis either. There are deaths, but no combatants, no physical resources have been destroyed, and there was no initial market crash, although obviously the markets are now reacting.
The crisis is of the entire system we’ve built. In another article, I described this as the bio-political straitjacket. We can’t reopen our economies, because if we do then more people will die. We can’t keep them closed either, because our entire way of life is built on growth, and without it, everything collapses. We can give up our civil liberties, submitting to more surveillance and control, but as Amartya Sen would say, what good is a society if the cost of our health and livelihoods is our hard fought for freedoms?
Gus Hurvey (Future Crunch)

This is an incredible read, and if you click through to anything this week to sit down and consume with your favourite beverage, I highly recommend this one.

Coronavirus shows us it’s time to rethink everything. Let's start with education

There’s nothing radical about the things we’re learning: it’s a matter of emphasis more than content – of centralising what is most important. Now, perhaps, we have an opportunity to rethink the entire basis of education. As local authorities in Scotland point out, outdoor learning could be the best means of getting children back to school, as it permits physical distancing. It lends itself to re-engagement with the living world. But, despite years of research demonstrating its many benefits, the funding for outdoor education and adventure learning has been cut to almost nothing.
George Monbiot (The Guardian)

To some extent, this is Monbiot using a different stick to bang the same drum, but he certainly has a point about the most important things to be teaching our young people as their future begins to look a lot different to ours.

The Machine Pauses

In 1909, following a watershed era of technological progress, but preceding the industrialized massacres of the Somme and Verdun, E.M. Forster imagined, in “The Machine Stops,” a future society in which the entirety of lived experience is administered by a kind of mechanical demiurge. The story is the perfect allegory for the moment, owing not least to its account of a society-wide sudden stop and its eerily prescient description of isolated lives experienced wholly through screens.
Stuart Whatley (The Hedgehog Review)

No, I didn't know what a 'demiurge' was either. Apparently, it's "an artisan-like figure responsible for fashioning and maintaining the physical universe".

This article, which not only quote E.M. Forster, but also Heidegger and Nathaniel Hawthorne, discusses whether we really should be allowing technology to dictate the momentum of society.
Party in a spreadsheet

Party in a Shared Google Doc

The party has no communal chat log. Whilst I can enable edit permissions for those with the party link, shared google docs don’t not allow for chat between anonymous animals. Instead conversations are typed in cells. There are too many animals to keep track of who is who. I stop and type to someone in a nearby cell. My cursor is blue, theirs is orange. I have no idea if they are a close friend or a total stranger. How do you hold yourself and what do you say to someone when personal context is totally stripped away?
Marie Foulston

I love this so much.

Being messy when everything is clean

o put it another way, people whose working lives can be mediated through technology — conducted from bedrooms and kitchen tables via Teams or Slack, email and video calls — are at much less risk. In fact, our laptops and smartphones might almost be said to be saving our lives. This is an unintended consequence of remote working, but it is certainly a new reality that needs to be confronted and understood.
And many people who can work from a laptop are also less likely to lose their jobs than people who work in the service and hospitality industries, especially those who have well-developed professional networks and high social capital. According to The Economist, this group are having a much better lockdown than most — homeschooling notwithstanding. But then, they probably also had a more comfortable life beforehand.
Rachel Coldicutt (Glimmers)

This post, "a scrapbook of links and questions that explore how civil society might be in a digital world," is a really interesting look at the physicality of our increasingly-digital world and how the messiness of human life is being 'cleaned up' by technology.

Remote work worsens inequality by mostly helping high-income earners

Given its potential benefits, telecommuting is an attractive option to many. Studies have shown a substantial number of workers would even agree to a lower salary for a job that would allow them to work from home. The appeal of remote work can be especially strong during times of crisis, but also exists under more normal circumstances.
The ongoing crisis therefore amplifies inequalities when it comes to financial and work-life balance benefits. If there’s a broader future adoption of telecommuting, a likely result of the current situation, that would still mean a large portion of the working population, many of them low-income workers, would be disadvantaged
Georges A. Tanguay & Ugo Lachapelle (The Conversation)

There's some interesting graphs included in this Canadian study of remote work. While I've written plenty about remote work before, I don't think I've really touched on how much it reinforces white, middle-class, male privilege.

The BBC has an article entitled Why are some people better at working from home than others? which suggests that succeeding and/or flourishing in a remote work situation is down to the individual, rather than the context. The truth is, it's almost always easier to be a man in a work environement ⁠— remote, or otherwise. This is something we need to change.
Unreal engine

A first look at Unreal Engine 5

We’ve just released a first look at Unreal Engine 5. One of our goals in this next generation is to achieve photorealism on par with movie CG and real life, and put it within practical reach of development teams of all sizes through highly productive tools and content libraries.

I remember showing my late grandmother FIFA 18 and her not being able to tell the difference between it and the football she watched regularly on the television.

Even if you're not a gamer, you'll find this video incredible. It shows how, from early next year, cinematic-quality experiences will be within grasp of even small development teams.

Grand illusion: how the pandemic exposed we're all just pretending

Our pretending we’re not drowning is the proof we have that we might still be worth saving. Our performing stability is one of the few ways that we hope we might navigate the narrow avenues that might still get us out.
A thing, though, about perpetuating misperceptions, about pretending – because you’re busy surviving, because you can’t stop playing the rigged game on the off-chance somehow that you might outsmart it, because you can’t help but feel like your circumstances must somehow be your fault – is that it makes it that much harder for any individual within the group to tell the truth.
Lynn Steger Strong (The Guardian)

Wouldn't be amazing if we collectively turned to one another, recognised our collective desire not to play 'the game' any more, and decided to go after those who have rigged the system against us?

How to improve your walking technique

What research shows is that how we walk, our gait mechanics, isn’t as “natural” as we might believe. We learn to walk by observing our parents and the world around us. As we grow up, we embody the patterns we see. These can limit the full potential of our gait. Some of us unconsciouly prevent the pelvis and arms from swinging because of cultural taboos that frown upon having a gait as being, for example, too free.
Suunto

My late, great, friend Dai Barnes was a barefoot runner. He used to talk a lot about how people walk and run incorrectly, partly because of the 'unnatural' cushioning of their feet. This article gives some advice on improving your walking gait, which I tried out today on a long family walk.

Header mage via xkcd

Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say

Drone

Post-pandemic surveillance culture

Today's title comes from Edward Snowden, and is a pithy overview of the 'nothing to hide' argument that I guess I've struggled to answer over the years. I'm usually so shocked that an intelligent person would say something to that effect, that I'm not sure how to reply.
When you say, ‘I have nothing to hide,’ you’re saying, ‘I don’t care about this right.’ You’re saying, ‘I don’t have this right, because I’ve got to the point where I have to justify it.’ The way rights work is, the government has to justify its intrusion into your rights.
Edward Snowden

This, then, is the fifth article in my ongoing blogchain about post-pandemic society, which already includes:
  1. People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character
  2. We have it in our power to begin the world over again
  3. There is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it
  4. The old is dying and the new cannot be born
It does not surprise me that those with either a loose grip on how the world works, or those who need to believe that someone, somewhere has 'a plan', believe in conspiracy theories around the pandemic.

What is true, and what can easily be mistaken for 'planning' is the preparedness of those with a strong ideology to double-down on it during a crisis. People and organisations reveal their true colours under stress. What was previously a long game now becomes a short-term priority.

For example, this week, the US Senate "voted to give law enforcement agencies access to web browsing data without a warrant", reports VICE. What's interesting, and concerning to me, is that Big Tech and governments are acting like they've already won the war on harvesting our online life, and now they're after our offline life, too.
Mike Caulfield
I have huge reservations about the speed in which Covid-19 apps for contact tracing are being launched when, ultimately, they're likely to be largely ineffective.

We already know how to do contact tracing well and to train people how to do it. But, of course, it costs money and is an investment in people instead of technology, and privacy instead of surveillance.

There are plenty of articles out there on the difference between the types of contact tracing apps that are being developed, and this BBC News article has a useful diagram showing the differences between the two.

TL;DR: there is no way that kind of app is going on my phone. I can't imagine anyone who I know who understands tech even a little bit installing it either.

Whatever the mechanics of how it goes about doing it happen to be, the whole point of a contact tracing app is to alert you and the authorities when you have been in contact with someone with the virus. Depending on the wider context, that may or may not be useful to you and society.

However, such apps are more widely applicable. One of the things about technology is to think about the effects it could have. What else could an app like this have, especially if it's baked into the operating systems of devices used by 99% of smartphone users worldwide?
The above diagram is Marshall McLuhan's tetrad of media effects, which is a useful frame for thinking about the impact of technology on society.

Big Tech and governments have our online social graphs, a global map of how everyone relates to everyone else in digital spaces. Now they're going after our offline social graphs too.

Exhibit A

Chinese drones
The general reaction to this seemed to be one of eye-rolling and expressing some kind of Chinese exceptionalism when this was reported back in January.

Exhibit B

Singarpore robot
Today, this Boston Dynamics robot is trotting around parks in Singapore reminding everyone about social distancing. What are these robots doing in five years' time?

Exhibit C

disinfecting-drones
Drones in different countries are disinfecting the streets. What's their role by 2030?

I think it's drones that concern me most of all. Places like Baltimore were already planning overhead surveillance pre-pandemic, and our current situation has only accelerated and exacerbated that trend.

In that case, it's US Predator drones that have previously been used to monitor and bomb places in the Middle East that are being deployed on the civilian population. These drones operate from a great height, unlike the kind of consumer drones that anyone can buy.

However, as was reported last year, we're on the cusp of photovoltaic drones that can fly for days at a time:
This breakthrough has big implications for technologies that currently rely on heavy batteries for power. Thermophotovoltaics are an ultralight alternative power source that could allow drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles to operate continuously for days. It could also be used to power deep space probes for centuries and eventually an entire house with a generator the size of an envelope.
Linda Vu (TechXplore)

Not only will the government be able to fly thousands of low-cost drones to monitor the population, but they can buy technology, like this example from DefendTex, to take down other drones.

That is, of course, if civilian drones continue to be allowed, especially given the 'security risk' of Chinese-made drones flying around.

It's interesting times for those who keep a watchful eye on their civil liberties and government invasion of privacy. Bear that in mind when tech bros tell you not to fear robots because they're dumb. The people behind them aren't, and they have an agenda.

Header image via Pixabay

Quotation of the week

A man is not necessarily intelligent because he has plenty of ideas, any more than he is a good general because he has plenty of soldiers.


(Nicolas Chamfort)
Until next week!

Doug
PS Just a reminder that I'm tending to write my weeknotes on a Sunday these days (i.e. after this goes out). Here's the category archive for them on my blog.
Dr. Doug Belshaw is an Open Educational Thinkerer, currently working with Moodle and We Are Open Co-op to improve our world.

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Some say he's snarky, others say he's sparky. No-one thinks he believes in hierarchy.
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