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Issue #377

29th March 2020
Hello!

How's things? I'd like to introduce a new section to this newsletter which involves a bit of audience participation. Wouldn't it be great interesting for everyone to know who else reads this, to have an idea of the community around Thought Shrapnel?

If you'd like to participate then it's really simple:
  1. I'm going to ask you a question, and you hit reply to answer it
  2. Next week, in issue #378, I'll publish some of the replies
Here goes...

What's one surprising thing you've seen or discovered during the last couple of weeks?

When you get in touch, please add whatever name you want me to associate with your reply. Feel free to make one up if you really want to remain anonymous!

As ever, you can discover what I've been up to this week in Weeknote 13/2020. Thanks to supporters for keeping Thought Shrapnel going in the good times and the bad. You can join them by clicking on the Patreon link at the bottom of this issue.

Friday flickerings

Friyay
I've tried to include some links here to other things here, but just like all roads read to Rome, all links eventually point to the pandemic.

I hope you and people that you care about are well. Stay safe, stay indoors, and let me know which of the following resonate with you!

Supermensch

Our stories about where inventiveness comes from, and how the future will be made, overwhelmingly focus on the power of the individual. Such stories appeal to the desire for human perfection (and redemption?) recast in technological language, and they were integral to the way that late-19th-century inventor-entrepreneurs, such as Tesla or Thomas Edison, presented themselves to their publics. They’re still very much part of the narrative of technological entrepreneurism now. Just as Tesla wanted to be seen as a kind of superhero of invention, unbound by conventional restraints, so too do his contemporary admirers at the cutting edge of the tech world. Superheroes resonate within that culture precisely because they embody in themselves the perception of technology as something that belongs to powerful and iconoclastic individuals. They epitomise the idea that technological culture is driven by outsiders. The character of Iron Man makes this very clear: after all, he really is a tech entrepreneur, his superpowers the product of the enhanced body armour he wears.
Iwan Rhys Morus (Aeon)

A really interesting read about the link between individualism, superheroes, technology, and innovation.

The Second Golden Age of Blogging

Blogging was then diffused into social media, but now social media is so tribal and algo-regulated that anybody with a real message today needs their own property. At the same time, professional institutions are increasingly suffocated by older, rent-seeking incumbents and politically-correct upstarts using moralism as a career strategy. In such a context, blogging — if it is intelligent, courageous, and consistent — is currently one of the most reliable methods for intellectually sophisticated individuals to accrue social and cultural capital outside of institutions. (Youtube for the videographic, Instagram for the photographic, podcasting for the loquacious, but writing and therefore blogging for the most intellectually sophisticated.)
Justin Murphy (Other LIfe)

I've been blogging since around 2004, so for sixteen years, and through all of my career to date. It's the best and most enjoyable thing about 'work'.

NASA Fixes Mars Lander By Telling It to Hit Itself With a Shovel

NASA expected its probe, dubbed “the mole,” to dig its way through sand-like terrain. But because the Martian soil clumped together, the whole apparatus got stuck in place.
Programming InSight’s robotic arm to land down on the mole was a risky, last-resort maneuver, PopSci reports, because it risked damaging fragile power and communication lines that attached nearby. Thankfully, engineers spent a few months practicing in simulations before they made a real attempt.
Dan Robitzski (Futurism)

The idea of NASA engineers sending a signal to a distant probe to get it to hit itself, in the midst of a crisis on earth, made me chuckle this week.

Act as if You’re Really There

Don’t turn your office into a generic TV backdrop. Video is boring enough. The more you remove from the frame, the less visual data you are providing about who you are, where you live, how you work, and what you care about. If you were watching a remote interview with, say, Bong Joon-ho (the South Korean director of Parasite) would you want him sitting on a blank set with a ficus plant? Of course not. You would want to see him in his real office or studio. What are the posters on his wall? The books on his shelf? Who are his influences?
Douglas Rushkoff (OneZero)

Useful advice in this post from Douglas Rushkoff. I appreciate his reflection that, "every pixel is a chance to share information about your process and proclivities."

People Are Looping Videos to Fake Paying Attention in Zoom Meetings

On Twitter, people are finding ways to use the Zoom Rooms custom background feature to slap an image of themselves in their frames. You can record a short, looping video as your background, or take a photo of yourself looking particularly attentive, depending on the level of believability you're going for. Zoom says it isn't using any kind of video or audio analysis to track attention, so this is mostly for your human coworkers and boss' sake. With one of these images on your background, you're free to leave your seat and go make a sandwich while your boss thinks you're still there paying attention:
Samantha Cole (Vice)

As an amusing counterpoint to the above article, I find it funny that people are using video backgrounds in this way!

A Guide to Hosting Virtual Events with Zoom

There are lots of virtual event tools out there, like Google Hangouts, YouTube Live, Vimeo Live. For this guide I’ll delve into how to use Zoom specifically. However, a lot of the best practices explored here are broadly applicable to other tools. My goal is that reading this document will give you all the tools you need to be able to set up a meeting and host it on Zoom (or other platforms) in fun and interactive ways.
Alexa Kutler (Google Docs)

This is an incredible 28-page document that explains how to set up Zoom meetings for success. Highly recommended!

The rise of the bio-surveillance state

Elements of Asia’s bio-surveillance revolution may not be as far off as citizens of Western democracies assume. On 24 March an emergency bill, which would relax limits on urgent surveillance warrants, went before the House of Lords. In any case, Britain’s existing Investigatory Powers Act already allows the state to seize mobile data if national security justifies it. In another sign that a new era in data rights is dawning, the EU is reviewing its recent white paper on AI regulation and delaying a review of online privacy rules. Researchers in both Britain (Oxford) and the US (MIT) are developing virus-tracking apps inviting citizens to provide movement data voluntarily. How desperate would the search for “needles in haystacks” have to get for governments to make such submissions compulsory? Israel’s draconian new regulations – which allegedly include tapping phone cameras and microphones – show how far down this road even broadly Western democracies might go to save lives and economies.
Jeremy Cliffe (New Statesman)

We need urgent and immediate action around the current criss. But we also need safeguards and failsafes so that we don't end up with post-pandemic authoritarian regimes.

The economy v our lives? It's a false choice – and a deeply stupid one

Soon enough, as hospitals around the world overflow with coronavirus patients, exhausting doctors, nurses, orderlies, custodians, medical supplies, ventilators and hospital cash accounts, doctors will have to make moral choices about who lives or dies. We should not supersede their judgment based on a false choice. Economic depression will come, regardless of how many we let die. The question is how long and devastating it will be.
Siva Vaidhyanathan (The Guardian)

Not exactly a fun read, but the truth is the world's economy is shafted no matter which way we look at it. And as I tweeted the other day, there's no real thing that exists, objectively speaking called 'the economy' which is separate from human relationships.

How the Pandemic Will End

Pandemics can also catalyze social change. People, businesses, and institutions have been remarkably quick to adopt or call for practices that they might once have dragged their heels on, including working from home, conference-calling to accommodate people with disabilities, proper sick leave, and flexible child-care arrangements. “This is the first time in my lifetime that I’ve heard someone say, ‘Oh, if you’re sick, stay home,’” says Adia Benton, an anthropologist at Northwestern University. Perhaps the nation will learn that preparedness isn’t just about masks, vaccines, and tests, but also about fair labor policies and a stable and equal health-care system. Perhaps it will appreciate that health-care workers and public-health specialists compose America’s social immune system, and that this system has been suppressed.
Ed Yong (The Atlantic)

Much of this is a bit depressing, but I've picked up on the more positive bit towards the end.

People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character

Megaphone pendant

Actions, reactions, and what comes next

We are, I would suggest, in a period of collective shock due to the pandemic. Of course, some people are better at dealing with these kinds of things than others. I'm not medically trained, but I'm pretty sure some of this comes down to genetics; it's probably something to do with the production of cortisol.

It might a little simplistic to separate people into those who are good in a crisis and those who aren't. It's got to be more complex than that. What if some people, despite their genetic predisposition, have performed some deliberate practice in terms of how they react to events and other things around them?
I often say to my kids that it's not your actions that mark you out as a person, but your reactions. After all, anyone can put on a 'mask' and affect an air of nonchalance and sophistication. But that mask can slip in a crisis. To mix metaphors, people lose control when they reach the end of their tether, and are at their most emotionally vulnerable and unguarded when things go wrong. This is when we see their true colours.

A few years ago, when I joined Moodle, I flew to Australia and we did some management bonding stuff and exercises. One of them was about the way that you operate in normal circumstances, and the way that you operate under pressure. Like most people, I tended to get more authoritarian in a crisis.

What we're seeing in this crisis, I think, are people's true colours. The things they're talking about the most and wanting to protect are the equivalent of them item they'd pull from a burning building. What do they want to protect from the coronavirus? Is it the economy? Is it their family? Is it freedom of speech?

Last week, I asked Thought Shrapnel supporters what I should write about. It was suggested that I focus on something beyond the "reaction and hyperaction" that's going on, and engage in "a little futurism and hope". Now that it's no longer easier to imagine the end of the world as the end of capitalism, how do we prepare for what comes next?

It's an interesting suggestion for a thought experiment. Before we go any further, though, I want to preface this by saying these are the ramblings of an incoherent fool. Don't make any investment decisions, buy any new clothes, or sever any relationships based on what I've got to say. After all, at this point, I'm mostly for rhetorical effect.

The first and obvious thing that I think will happen as a result of the pandemic is that people will get sick and some will die. Pretty much everyone on earth will either lose someone close to them or know someone who has. Death, as it has done for much of human history, will stalk us, and be something we are forced to both confront and talk about.
This may not seem like a very cheerful and hopeful place to start, but, actually, not being afraid to die seems to be the first step in living a fulfilling life. As I've said before, quoting it is the child within us that trembles before death. Coming to terms with that fact that you and the people you love are going to die at some point is just accepting the obvious.

If we don't act like we're going to live forever, if we confront our mortal condition, then it forces us to make some choices, both individually and as a society. How do we care for people who are sick and dying? How should we support those who are out of work? What kind of education do we want for our kids?

I forsee a lot of basic questions being re-asked and many assumptions re-evaluated in the light of the pandemic. Individually, in communities, and as societies, we'll look back and wonder why it was that companies making billions of dollars when everything was fine were all of a sudden unable to meet their financial obligations when things weren't going so well. We'll realise that, at root, the neoliberalist form of capitalism we've been drinking like kool-aid actually takes from the many and gives to the few.
Before the pandemic, we had dead metaphors for both socialism and "pulling together in times of adversity". Socialism has been unfairly caricatured as, and equated with, the totalitarian communist experiment in Russia. Meanwhile, neoliberals have done a great job at equating adversity with austerity, invoking memories of life during WWII. Keep Calm and Carry On.

This is why, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, despite the giant strides and inroads into our collective consciousness, made by the Occupy movement, it ultimately failed. When it came down to brass tacks, we were frightened that destroying our current version of capitalism would mean we'd be left with totalitarian communism: queuing for food, spying on your neighbours, and suchlike.

So instead we invoked the only "pulling together in times of adversity" meme we knew: austerity. Unfortunately, that played straight into the hands of those who were happy to hollow out civic society for financial gain.

Post-pandemic, as we're rebuilding society, I think that not only will there be fewer old people (grim, but true) but the overall shock will move the Overton Window further to left than it has been previously. Those who remain are likely to be much more receptive to the kind of socialism that would make things like Universal Basic Income and radically decarbonising the planet into a reality.

Making predictions about politics is a lot easier than making predictions about technology. That's for a number of reasons, including how quickly the latter moves compared to the former, and also because of the compound effect that different technologies can have on society.

For example, look at the huge changes in the last decade around smartphones now being something that people spend several hours using each day. A decade ago we were concerned about people's access to any form of internet-enabled device. Now, we just assume that everyone's gone one which they can use to connect during the pandemic.
What concerns me is that the past decade has seen not only the hollowing-out of civic society in western democracies, but also our capitulation to venture capital-backed apps that make our lives easier. The reason? They're all centralised.

I'm certainly not denying that some of this is going to make our life much easier short-term. Being on lockdown and still being able to have Amazon deliver almost anything to me is incredible. As is streaming all of the things via Netflix, etc. But, ultimately, caring doesn't scale, and scaling doesn't care.

Right now, we relying on centralised technologies. Everywhere I look, people are using a apps, tools, and platforms that could go down at any time. Remember the Twitter fail whale?
What happens when that scenario happens with Zoom? Or Microsoft Teams? Or Slack, or any kind of service that relies on the one organisation having their shit together for an extended period of time during a pandemic?

I think we're going to see outages or other degradations in service. I'm hoping that this will encourage people to experiment with other, decentralised platforms, rather than leap from the frying pan of one failed centralised service into the fire another.

In terms of education, I don't think it's that difficult to predict what comes next. While I could be spectacularly wrong, the longer kids are kept at home and away from school, the more online teaching and learning has to become something mainstream.
Then, when it's time to go back to school, some kids won't. They and their parents will realise that they don't need to, or that they are happier, or have learned more staying at home. Not all, by any means, but a significant majority. And because everyone has been in the same boat, parents will have peer support in doing so.

The longer the pandemic lockdown goes on, the more educational institutions will have to think about the logistics and feasibility of online testing. I'd like to think that competency-based learning and stackable digital credentials like Open Badges will become the norm.

Further out, as young people affected by the pandemic lockdown enter the job market, I'd hope that they would reject the traditional CV or resume as something that represents their experiences. Instead, although it's more time-consuming to look at, I'd hope for portfolio-based approaches (with verified digital credentials) to become standard.

Education isn't just about, or even mainly about, getting a job. So what about the impact of the pandemic on learners? On teachers? Well, if I'm being optimistic and hopeful, I'd say that it shows that things can be done differently at scale.
In the same way that climate change-causing emissions dropped dramatically in China and other countries during the enforced coronavirus lockdown, so we can get rid of the things we know are harmful in education.

High-stakes testing? We don't need it. Kids being taught in classes of 30+ by a low-paid teacher? Get over it. Segregation between rich and poor through private education? Reject it.

All of this depends on how we respond to the 'shock and awe' of both the pandemic and its response. We're living during a crisis when it's almost certainly necessary to bring in the kind of authoritarian measures we'd reject at any other time. While we need to move quickly, we still need to subject legislation and new social norms to some kind of scrutiny.

This period in history provides us with a huge opportunity. When I was a History teacher, one of my favourite things to teach kids was about revolutions; about times when people took things into their own hands. There's the obvious examples, for sure, like 1789 and the French Revolution.

But perhaps my absolute favourite was for them to discover what happened after the Black Death ravaged Europe in particular in the 14th century. Unable to find enough workers to work their land, lords had to pay peasants several times what they could have previously expected. In fact, it led to the end of the entire feudal system.

We have the power to achieve something similar here. Except instead of serfdom, the thing we can escape from his neoliberal capitalism, the idea that the poor should suffer for the enrichment of the elite. We can and should structure our society so that never happens again.
In other words, never waste a crisis. What are you doing to help the revolution? Remember, when it comes down to it, power is always taken, never freely given.

BONUS: after writing this, I listened to a recent a16z podcast on Remote Work and Our New Reality. Worth a listen!
Until next week,
Doug
Doug Belshaw
Dr. Doug Belshaw is an Open Educational Thinkerer, currently working with Moodle and We Are Open Co-op to improve our world.

You can connect with Doug by replying to this email, or via Twitter, LinkedIn, or Mastodon (here's a guide to getting started with the latter!)

Some say he's a recluse. Others say he's abstruse. No-one thinks he likes tomato juice.
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