Cancel Technology

    Noah Smith makes a good point in this article that ‘cancel culture’ has always existed, we just called it ‘social ostracism’. The difference is the technology we interact with, and the intended and unintended audiences with which we communicate.

    First let’s think about distribution. In the olden days, you could “read the room” and decide whether you were going to get a sympathetic ear before you said something. You knew who you were hanging out with — your relatives, or your coworkers, or your buddies, or your neighbors, or your cell of the Communist Party, etc. On the internet, that’s much less true. On Twitter, anyone can see what you write and retweet it or screenshot it to millions of strangers all over the globe. In a Facebook group, you probably don’t know exactly what kind of others are in the group unless it’s really small. If you put something up on a website, anyone can read it. Etc.

    The internet also makes it much less hard to maintain private spaces because text can be screenshotted and distributed widely. In the old days, if you said something that would be cancel-worthy outside the group of people you were talking to, it was impossible for someone to verifiably transmit that information outside the group — they could snitch on you, but it would be hearsay and you could deny it. But when you write something down, the text of what you wrote can be screenshotted and distributed widely to people that you didn’t expect to be watching you.

    Now, this broad distribution has a number of effects. It makes it a lot harder to get together with your buddies in private and say racist or sexist stuff, because now one of them can betray you with a screenshot. Lots of people are probably pleased with that outcome.

    But it also means that everyone who talks on the internet must always worry about their words being shown to someone who’s going to interpret it in an uncharitable way.

    […]

    Thus, the internet changes Cancel Culture by massively increasing the number of people who can target you for ostracism. It’s a bit like living in a gossipy small town where you don’t know any of your neighbors — you don’t know who’s going to read what you write, so you don’t know how people are going to take what you say.

    Source: It’s not Cancel Culture, it’s Cancel Technology | Noahpinion

    Offline for 3 days

    David Cain took three days offline. It sounds like something that wouldn’t have been amazing 15 years ago, but these days goes straight to the front page of Hacker News.

    I can understand why it’s weird to live in the hybrid world of being middle-aged and being alive before everything and everyone was online. But the big thing we need to do is to help the next generations understand that there is an offline world which is rich and worthwhile.

    This simplicity was disorienting in a way. Many times a day I would finish whatever activity I was doing, and realize there was nothing to do but consciously choose another activity and then do that. This is how I made my first bombshell discovery: I take out my phone every time I finish doing basically anything, knowing there will be new emails or mentions or some other dopaminergic prize to collect. I have been inserting an open-ended period of pointless dithering after every intentional task.
    Source: Raptitude.com – Getting Better at Being Human

    Facebook is dying

    While I only deleted my Twitter account at the end of last year, it’s been about 12 years since I deleted my Facebook one. As Cory Doctorow points out, it’s a terrible organisation that no-one should work for, and whose products no-one should use.

    Facebook logo and stock ticker going down

    Even before its stock fell off a cliff, Facebook was mired in a multi-year hiring crisis. Nobody wanted to work for Facebook because it’s a terrible company that makes terrible products that everyone hates and only use because the company has rigged the system to punish users for switching.

    Facebook was already paying a wage premium, offering sweeteners to in-demand workers in exchange for checking their consciences at the door. Those sweeteners mostly took the form of shares, which means that all those morally flexible “Metamates” got a hefty pay-cut when the company’s stock price fell off a cliff. Expect a lot of them to leave – and expect the company to have to pay even more to replace them. Companies with falling share prices can’t use share grants to attract workers.

    Facebook is now famously trying to pivot (ugh) to virtual reality to save itself. It’s an expensive gambit. It’s going to alienate a lot of its users. It’s going to alienate a lot of its in-demand workers. It’s going to freak out a lot of regulators.

    Meanwhile, the switching costs for people who want to jump ship keep getting lower. It’s not merely that fewer and fewer of the people you want to talk with are still on Facebook. Even if there’s someone whose virtual company you can’t bear to part with, lawmakers in the US and Europe are working on legislation that would force Facebook to allow third parties to “federate” new services with it. That would mean that you could quit Facebook and join an upstart rival – say, one by a privacy-respecting nonprofit or even a user-owned co-op – and still exchange messages with the communities, customers and family you left behind on Facebook’s sinking ship.

    Source: I’ve been waiting 15 years for Facebook to die. I’m more hopeful than ever | The Guardian

    Technology and productivity

    Julian Stodd’s personal realisation that what the people who make ‘productivity tools’ want and what he wants might be two different things.

    See also: Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman

    I fear that the suites of tools and features that allow me to work from anywhere do, in fact, distract me everywhere.

    I feel that at time i have lost the art of long form and collapsed into the conversational and reactive.

    […]

    Does technology always make us more productive – or can technology hold us apart? Do we need to be together to forge culture, and to find meaning, or can being together make us more busy than wise?

    I suspect my personal (and perhaps our organisational) challenge is one of separation: to separate out my segregated spaces – to separate my thinking and doing, my learning and acting, my reflection and practice.

    Source: The Delusion of Productivity | Julian Stodd’s Learning Blog

    Laptops aren't what they used to be

    This guy went back to using a Lenovo ThinkPad T430 and explains why in this post. Over Christmas, I replaced some of the cosmetic parts of my X220, which is also from 2012.

    It’s amazing how usable it still is, and I actively prefer the keyboard over the more modern ones.

    I’ve been using this setup for over a month now, and it has been surprisingly adequate. Yes, opening Java projects in IntelliJ will make things slow, and to record my desktop with OBS and acceptable performance, I had to drop my screen resolution to 720p. I can’t expect everything to work super well on this machine, but for a computer that’s released almost 10 years ago, it’s still holding up well.

    I’d like to thank Intel here for making this possible. The CPU innovation stagnation between 2012-2017 has resulted in 4 cores still being an acceptable low-end CPU in early 2022. Without this, my laptop would likely be obsolete by now.

    Source: Why I went back to using a ThinkPad from 2012

    Briar now does pictures

    Briar isn’t the kind of app you necessarily use every day and, in fact, it positions itself as a something used by activists. That being said, it’s really useful that there’s now the ability to send images to other users.

    I’ve tested the feature (which requires both parties to be on v1.3) and it works well.

    The Briar Project released version 1.3 of its Android app today. Thanks to support from eQualit.ie, this release adds several new features that have been requested by many users over the years.With today’s release, users can upload profile pictures that will be visible only to their contacts.Lots of people have asked for a way to send images via Briar. We listened! This release adds the ability to send images in private conversations. Images are still heavily compressed, so high resolution images might show pixel artifacts.
    Source: Briar 1.3 released 

    Portals to another world (or town)

    I love this idea. I can think of many ways it could go wrong, but that’s not the point. There’s also lots of ways it could be awesome.

    Vilnius, Lithuania, has installed a “portal” that allows residents to make contact in real time with the inhabitants of Lublin, Poland. Each city hosts a large circular screen and cameras by which residents can interact in real time via the Internet.
    Source: Neighbors - Futility Closet

    A robot that sticks to ceilings by... vibrating

    It would not be better if things happened to men just as they wish

    🕸️ A plan to redesign the internet could make apps that no one controls ⁠— "Rewinding the internet is not about nostalgia. The dominance of a few companies, and the ad-tech industry that supports them, has distorted the way we communicate—pulling public discourse into a gravity well of hate speech and misinformation—and upended basic norms of privacy. There are few places online beyond the reach of these tech giants, and few apps or services that thrive outside of their ecosystems."

    It is, inevitably, focused on crypto tokens, which provide an economic incentive. If only there was a way to fix things that didn't seem to be driven by making the inventors obscenely rich?


    🤯 Can’t Get You Out of My Head review – Adam Curtis's 'emotional history' is dazzling — "Whether you are convinced or not by the working hypothesis, Can’t Get You Out of My Head is a rush. It is vanishingly rare to be confronted by work so dense, so widely searching and ambitious in scope, so intelligent and respectful of the audience’s intelligence, too. It is rare, also, to watch a project over which one person has evidently been given complete creative freedom and control without any sense of self-indulgence creeping in."

    Adam Curtis' documentary 'Hypernormalisation' blew my mind, and I'm already enjoying the first of these six hour-long documentaries.


    💸 Why Mastercard is bringing crypto onto its network — "We are preparing right now for the future of crypto and payments, announcing that this year Mastercard will start supporting select cryptocurrencies directly on our network. This is a big change that will require a lot of work. We will be very thoughtful about which assets we support based on our principles for digital currencies, which focus on consumer protections and compliance."

    Companies like Mastercard haven't got much of a choice here: they have to either get with the program or risk being replaced. Hopefully it will help simplify what is a confusing picture at the moment. I've had problems recently withdrawing money from cryptocurrency exchanges to my bank accounts.


    👉 Hovering over decline and clicking accept — "There's so much written about self-care. And much of it starts from a good place but falls apart the moment things get hectic. But this idea of Past You working in service of Future You isn't a one-off. It's not a massage you sneak in one Friday morning. The secret hope that 60 minutes of hot rocks will counteract 12 hours a day hunched over a laptop."

    Some good advice in here from the Nightingales, whose book is also worth a read.


    👨‍💻 Praxis and the Indieweb — "If a movement has at its core a significant barrier to entry, then it is always exclusionary. While we’ve already seen that the movement has barriers at ability and personality, it is also true that, as of 2021, there is a significant barrier in terms of monetary resources."

    As I said a year ago in this microcast, I have issues with the IndieWeb and why I'm more of a fan of decentralisation through federation.


    Quotation-as-title by Heraclitus. Image by Saad Chaudhry.

    Continuous eloquence is tedious

    Corner of a high-rise building

    🏭 Ukraine plans huge cryptocurrency mining data centers next to nuclear power plants — "Ukraine's Energoatom followed up [the May 2020] deal with another partnership in October. The state enterprise announced an MoU with Dutch mining company Bitfury to operate multiple data centers near its four nuclear power plants, with a total mining consumption of 2GW."

    It's already impossible to buy graphics cards, due to their GPUs being perfect for crypto mining. That fact doesn't seem like it's going to be resolved anytime soon.


    😔 The unbearable banality of Jeff Bezos — "To put it in Freudian terms, we are talking about the triumph of the consumerist id over the ethical superego. Bezos is a kind of managerial Mephistopheles for our time, who will guarantee you a life of worldly customer ecstasy as long as you avert your eyes from the iniquities being carried out in your name."

    I've started buying less stuff from Amazon; even just removing the app from my phone has made them treat me as just another online shop. I also switched a few years ago from a Kindle to a ePub-based e-reader.


    📱 The great unbundling — "Covid brought shock and a lot of broken habits to tech, but mostly, it accelerates everything that was already changing. 20 trillion dollars of retail, brands, TV and advertising is being overturned, and software is remaking everything from cars to pharma. Meanwhile, China has more smartphone users than Europe and the USA combined, and India is close behind - technology and innovation will be much more widely spread. For that and lots of other reasons, tech is becoming a regulated industry, but if we step over the slogans, what does that actually mean? Tech is entering its second 50 years."

    This is a really interesting presentation (and slide deck). It's been interesting watching Evans build this iteratively over the last few weeks, as he's been sharing his progress on Twitter.


    🗯️ The Coup We Are Not Talking About — "In an information civilization, societies are defined by questions of knowledge — how it is distributed, the authority that governs its distribution and the power that protects that authority. Who knows? Who decides who knows? Who decides who decides who knows? Surveillance capitalists now hold the answers to each question, though we never elected them to govern. This is the essence of the epistemic coup. They claim the authority to decide who knows by asserting ownership rights over our personal information and defend that authority with the power to control critical information systems and infrastructures."

    Zuboff is an interesting character, and her book on surveillance capitalism is a classic. This might article be a little overblown, but it's still an important subject for discussion.


    ☀️ Who Built the Egyptian Pyramids? Not Slaves — "So why do so many people think the Egyptian pyramids were built by slaves? The Greek historian Herodotus seems to have been the first to suggest that was the case. Herodotus has sometimes been called the “father of history.” Other times he's been dubbed the “father of lies.” He claimed to have toured Egypt and wrote that the pyramids were built by slaves. But Herodotus actually lived thousands of years after the fact."

    It's always good to challenge our assumptions, and, perhaps more importantly, analyse why we came to hold them in the first place.


    Quotation-as-title by Blaise Pascal. Image by Victor Forgacs.

    The problem is that the person who should be the most restrained is the least

    Turtle poking its head out of water covered with duckweed

    🦆 Bionic Duckweed: making the future the enemy of the present — "In its broader sense, bionic duckweed can be thought of a sort of unobtainium that renders investment in present-day technologies pointless, unimaginative, and worst of all On The Wrong Side Of History. “Don’t invest in what can be done today, because once bionic duckweed is invented it’ll all be obsolete.” It is a sort of promissory note in reverse, forcing us into inaction today in the hope of wonders tomorrow."

    🤔 The best tech of CES 2020: Where are they now? — "What looked like it was just a one-off at the largest tech tradeshow in the world, but actually turned out to be a real product? What got a lot of buzz and then dropped off our radars, only to resurface months later? And, of course, what was simply too good to be true?"

    💬 If it will matter after today, stop talking about it in a chat room — "Rule of thumb: If a discussion will matter after today, don’t have it in a chat room. Check out Discourse, Twist, Carrot, Threads, Basecamp, Flarum, or heck even GitHub issues. These tools exist for a reason. They solve a real problem."

    🔥 Sauron Has the Power of the One Ring for Another Week, What’s the Worst that Could Happen? — "Upon further reflection, we are not entirely sure the orcs and trolls who participated in this demonstration were indeed sent by Sauron. Yes, the Mouth of Sauron encouraged the pro-Evil horde into a “trial by combat.” Yes, the crowd was painted with Sauron’s Red Eye and chanted his name. But anyone can mix paint and yell. We have it on good rumor that there were hobbits mixed into the gathering and inciting violence. Granted, we started these rumors, but oftentimes rumors are true."

    Working Off-Grid Efficiently — "For the first 3 years we tested the limits of our space, and at first, it was difficult to create new things, as we had to make time to learn how to solve the underlying problems. Our boat was not just an office, it was also our house and transport. As for us, we were artists, but also had to be plumbers, deckhands, electricians, captains, janitors and accountants."


    Quotation-as-title by Baltasar Gracián. Image from top-linked post.

    Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self

    📚 Bookshelf designs as unique as you are: Part 2 — "Stuffing all your favorite novels into a single space without damaging any of them, and making sure the whole affair looks presentable as well? Now, that’s a tough task. So, we’ve rounded up some super cool, functional and not to mention aesthetically pleasing bookshelf designs for you to store your paperback companions in!"

    📱 How to overcome Phone Addiction [Solutions + Research] — "Phone addiction goes hand in hand with anxiety and that anxiety often lowers the motivation to engage with people in real life. This is a huge problem because re-connecting with people in the offline world is a solution that improves the quality of life. The unnecessary drop in motivation because of addiction makes it that much harder to maintain social health."

    ⚙️ From Tech Critique to Ways of Living — "This technological enframing of human life, says Heidegger, first “endanger[s] man in his relationship to himself and to everything that is” and then, beyond that, “banishes” us from our home. And that is a great, great peril."

    🎨 Finding time for creativity will give you respite from worries — "According to one study examining the links between art and health, a cost-benefit analysis showed a 37% drop in GP consultation rates and a 27% reduction in hospital admissions when patients were involved in creative pursuits. Other studies have found similar results. For example, when people were asked to write about a trauma for 15 minutes a day, it resulted in fewer subsequent visits to the doctor, compared to a control group."

    🧑‍🤝‍🧑 For psychologists, the pandemic has shown people’s capacity for cooperation — "In short, what we have seen is a psychology of collective resilience supplanting a psychology of individual frailty. Such a shift has profound implications for the relationship between the citizen and the state. For the role of the state becomes less a matter of substituting for the deficiencies of the individual and more to do with scaffolding and supporting communal self-organisation."


    Quotation-as-title by Cyril Connolly. Image from top-linked post.

    Slowly-boiling frogs in Facebook's surveillance panopticon

    I can't think of a worse company than Facebook than to be creating a IRL surveillance panopticon. But, I have to say, it's entirely on-brand.

    On Wednesday, the company announced a plan to map the entire world, beyond street view. The company is launching a set of glasses that contains cameras, microphones, and other sensors to build a constantly updating map of the world in an effort called Project Aria. That map will include the inside of buildings and homes and all the objects inside of them. It’s Google Street View, but for your entire life.

    Dave Gershgorn, Facebook’s Project Aria Is Google Maps — For Your Entire Life (OneZero)

    We're like slowly-boiling frogs with this stuff. Everything seems fine. Until it's not.

    The company insists any faces and license plates captured by Aria glasses wearers will be anonymized. But that won’t protect the data from Facebook itself. Ostensibly, Facebook will possess a live map of your home, pictures of your loved ones, pictures of any sensitive documents or communications you might be looking at with the glasses on, passwords — literally your entire life. The employees and contractors who have agreed to wear the research glasses are already trusting the company with this data.

    Dave Gershgorn, Facebook’s Project Aria Is Google Maps — For Your Entire Life (OneZero)

    With Amazon cosying up to police departments in the US with its Ring cameras, we really are hurtling towards surveillance states in the West.

    Who has access to see the data from this live 3D map, and what, precisely, constitutes private versus public data? And who makes that determination? Faces might be blurred, but people can be easily identified without their faces. What happens if law enforcement wants to subpoena a day’s worth of Facebook’s LiveMap? Might Facebook ever build a feature to try to, say, automatically detect domestic violence, and if so, what would it do if it detected it?

    Dave Gershgorn, Facebook’s Project Aria Is Google Maps — For Your Entire Life (OneZero)

    Judges already requisition Fitbit data to solve crimes. No matter what Facebook say are their intentions around Project Aria, this data will end up in the hands of law enforcement, too.


    More details on Project Aria:

    Ethics is the result of the human will

    Sabelo Mhlambi is a computer scientist, researcher and Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. He focuses on the ethical implications of technology in the developing world, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, and has written a great, concise essay on technological ethics in relation to the global north and south.

    Ethics is not missing in technology, rather we are witnessing the ethics in technology – the ethics of the powerful. The ethics of individualism.

    Mhlambi makes a number of important points, and I want to share three of them. First, he says that ethics is the result of human will, not algorithmic processes:

    Ethics should not be left to algorithmic definitions and processes, ultimately ethics is a result of the human will. Technology won’t save us. The abdication of social and environmental responsibility by creators of technology should not be allowed to become the norm.

    Second, technology is a driver of change in society, and, because technology is not neutral, we have individualism baked into the tools we use:

    Ethics describes one’s relationship and responsibilities to others and the environment. Ethics is the protocol for human interaction, with each other and with the world. Different ethical systems may be described through this scale: Individualistic systems promote one’s self assertion through the limitation of one’s relationship and responsibilities to others and the environment. In contrast, a more communal ethics asserts the self through the encouragement of one’s relationship and responsibilities to the community and the environment.

    This is, he says, a form of colonialism:

    Technology designed and deployed beyond its ethical borders poses a threat to social stability in different regions with different ethical systems, norms and values. The imposition of a society’s beliefs on another is colonial. This relationship can be observed even amongst members of the South as the more economically developed nations extend their technology and influence into less developed nations, the East to Africa relationship being an example.

    Third, over and above the individualism and colonialism, the technologies we use are unrepresentative because they do not take into account the lived experiences and view of marginalised groups:

    In the development and funding of technology, marginalized groups are underrepresented. Their values and views are unaccounted for. In the software industry marginalized groups make a minority of the labor force and leadership roles. The digital divide continues to increase when technology is only accessible through the languages of the well developed nations. 

    It's an important essay, and one that I'll no doubt be returning to in the weeks and months to come.

    The truth is too simple: one must always get there by a complicated route

    The future of closed, proprietary technology is within your body

    Referencing a recent article in The New York Times, and using a metaphor from his honeymoon in Cancun, Purism's Chief Security Officer raises some important questions about the closed/open future of technology:

    Think about the future of computers over the next fifty years. Computers will become even more ubiquitous, not just embedded in all of the things around us, but embedded inside us. With advances in neural-computer interfaces, there is a high likelihood that we will be connecting computers directly to our brains within our lifetimes. Which tech company would you trust to control your neural implant?

    If a computer can read and write directly to your brain, does it change how you feel about vendors controlling which software you can use or whether you can see the code? Does it change how you feel about vendors subsidizing hardware and software with ads or selling data they access through your computer? Does it change how you feel about government regulation of technology?

    Kyle Rankin, Tourists on Tech's Toll Roads

    Saturday shakings

    Whew, so many useful bookmarks to re-read for this week’s roundup! It took me a while, so let’s get on with it…


    Cartoon picture of someone working from home

    What is the future of distributed work?

    To Bharat Mediratta, chief technology officer at Dropbox, the quarantine experience has highlighted a huge gap in the market. “What we have right now is a bunch of different productivity and collaboration tools that are stitched together. So I will do my product design in Figma, and then I will submit the code change on GitHub, I will push the product out live on AWS, and then I will communicate with my team using Gmail and Slack and Zoom,” he says. “We have all that technology now, but we don't yet have the ‘digital knowledge worker operating system’ to bring it all together.”

    WIRED

    OK, so this is a sponsored post by Dropbox on the WIRED website, but what it highlights is interesting. For example, Monday.com (which our co-op uses) rebranded itself a few months ago as a 'Work OS'. There's definitely a lot of money to be made for whoever manages to build an integrated solution, although I think we're a long way off something which is flexible enough for every use case.


    The Definition of Success Is Autonomy

    Today, I don’t define success the way that I did when I was younger. I don’t measure it in copies sold or dollars earned. I measure it in what my days look like and the quality of my creative expression: Do I have time to write? Can I say what I think? Do I direct my schedule or does my schedule direct me? Is my life enjoyable or is it a chore?

    Ryan Holiday

    Tim Ferriss has this question he asks podcast guests: "If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it what would it say and why?" I feel like the title of this blog post is one of the answers I would give to that question.


    Do The Work

    We are a small group of volunteers who met as members of the Higher Ed Learning Collective. We were inspired by the initial demand, and the idea of self-study, interracial groups. The initial decision to form this initiative is based on the myriad calls from people of color for white-bodied people to do internal work. To do the work, we are developing a space for all individuals to read, share, discuss, and interrogate perspectives on race, racism, anti-racism, identity in an educational setting. To ensure that the fight continues for justice, we need to participate in our own ongoing reflection of self and biases. We need to examine ourselves, ask questions, and learn to examine our own perspectives. We need to get uncomfortable in asking ourselves tough questions, with an understanding that this is a lifelong, ongoing process of learning.

    Ian O'Byrne

    This is a fantastic resource for people who, like me, are going on a learning journey at the moment. I've found the podcast Seeing White by Scene on Radio particularly enlightening, and at times mind-blowing. Also, the Netflix documentary 13th is excellent, and available on YouTube.


    Welding a motherboard

    How to Make Your Tech Last Longer

    If we put a small amount of time into caring for our gadgets, they can last indefinitely. We’d also be doing the world a favor. By elongating the life of our gadgets, we put more use into the energy, materials and human labor invested in creating the product.

    Brian X. Chen (The new York times)

    This is a pretty surface-level article that basically suggests people take their smartphone to a repair shop instead of buying a new one. What it doesn't mention is that aftermarket operating systems such as the Android-based LineageOS can extend the lifetime of smartphones by providing security updates long beyond those provided by vendors.


    Law enforcement arrests hundreds after compromising encrypted chat system

    EncroChat sold customized Android handsets with GPS, camera, and microphone functionality removed. They were loaded with encrypted messaging apps as well as a secure secondary operating system (in addition to Android). The phones also came with a self-destruct feature that wiped the device if you entered a PIN.

    The service had customers in 140 countries. While it was billed as a legitimate platform, anonymous sources told Motherboard that it was widely used among criminal groups, including drug trafficking organizations, cartels, and gangs, as well as hitmen and assassins.

    EncroChat didn’t become aware that its devices had been breached until May after some users noticed that the wipe function wasn’t working. After trying and failing to restore the features and monitor the malware, EncroChat cut its SIM service and shut down the network, advising customers to dispose of their devices.

    Monica Chin (The Verge)

    It goes without saying that I don't want assassins, drug traffickers, and mafia types to be successful in life. However, I'm always a little concerned when there are attacks on encryption, as they're compromising systems also potentially used by protesters, activists, and those who oppose the status quo.


    Uncovered: 1,000 phrases that incorrectly trigger Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant

    The findings demonstrate how common it is for dialog in TV shows and other sources to produce false triggers that cause the devices to turn on, sometimes sending nearby sounds to Amazon, Apple, Google, or other manufacturers. In all, researchers uncovered more than 1,000 word sequences—including those from Game of Thrones, Modern Family, House of Cards, and news broadcasts—that incorrectly trigger the devices.

    “The devices are intentionally programmed in a somewhat forgiving manner, because they are supposed to be able to understand their humans,” one of the researchers, Dorothea Kolossa, said. “Therefore, they are more likely to start up once too often rather than not at all.”

    Dan Goodin (Ars Technica)

    As anyone with voice assistant-enabled devices in their home will testify, the number of times they accidentally spin up, or misunderstand what you're saying can be amusing. But we can and should be wary of what's being listened to, and why.


    The Five Levels of Remote Work

    The Five Levels of Remote Work — and why you’re probably at Level 2

    Effective written communication becomes critical the more companies embrace remote work. With an aversion to ‘jumping on calls’ at a whim, and a preference for asynchronous communication... [most] communications [are] text-based, and so articulate and timely articulation becomes key.

    Steve Glaveski (The Startup)

    This is from March and pretty clickbait-y, but everyone wants to know how they can improve - especially if didn't work remotely before the pandemic. My experience is that actually most people are at Level 3 and, of course, I'd say that I and my co-op colleagues are at Level 5 given our experience...


    Why Birds Can Fly Over Mount Everest

    All mammals, including us, breathe in through the same opening that we breathe out. Can you imagine if our digestive system worked the same way? What if the food we put in our mouths, after digestion, came out the same way? It doesn’t bear thinking about! Luckily, for digestion, we have a separate in and out. And that’s what the birds have with their lungs: an in point and an out point. They also have air sacs and hollow spaces in their bones. When they breathe in, half of the good air (with oxygen) goes into these hollow spaces, and the other half goes into their lungs through the rear entrance. When they breathe out, the good air that has been stored in the hollow places now also goes into their lungs through that rear entrance, and the bad air (carbon dioxide and water vapor) is pushed out the front exit. So it doesn’t matter whether birds are breathing in or out: Good air is always going in one direction through their lungs, pushing all the bad air out ahead of it.

    Walter Murch (Nautilus)

    Incredible. Birds are badass (and also basically dinosaurs).


    Montaigne Fled the Plague, and Found Himself

    In the many essays of his life he discovered the importance of the moderate life. In his final essay, “On Experience,” Montaigne reveals that “greatness of soul is not so much pressing upward and forward as knowing how to circumscribe and set oneself in order.” What he finds, quite simply, is the importance of the moderate life. We must then, he writes, “compose our character, not compose books.” There is nothing paradoxical about this because his literary essays helped him better essay his life. The lesson he takes from this trial might be relevant for our own trial: “Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live properly.”

    Robert Zaresky (The New York Times)

    Every week, Bryan Alexander replies to the weekly Thought Shrapnel newsletter. Last week, he sent this article to both me and Chris Lott (who produces the excellent Notabilia).

    We had a bit of a chat, with us sharing our love of How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer by Sarah Bakewell, and well as the useful tidbits it's possible glean from Stefan Zweig's short biography simply entitled Montaigne.


    Header image by Nicolas Comte

    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

    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.


    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.

    [twitter.com/holden/st...](https://twitter.com/holden/status/1260813197402968071?s=20)

    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?

    CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

    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

    [twitter.com/globaltim...](https://twitter.com/globaltimesnews/status/1223257710033960960)

    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

    [www.youtube.com/watch](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=viuR7N6E2LA)

    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

    [twitter.com/thehill/s...](https://twitter.com/thehill/status/1246592135358484480?s=20)

    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

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