Category: 21st Century Society (page 1 of 6)

Co-operation and anti-social punishment in different societies

I find this absolutely fascinating. It turns out that some societies actively ‘punish’ those who engage in collaborative and co-operative ventures:

Social contributions over time (with punishment)

The tragedy of the commons is already well-documented, showing that commonly-owned resources end up suffering if people can free-ride without consequences. The above chart, however, shows that in some cultures, there being a consequence for that free-riding leads to contribution (e.g. Boston, Copenhagen). In others, it makes no difference (e.g. Riyadh, Athens).

Herrmann, Thöni and Gächter speculate that the anti-social punishment may be a form of revenge. You’ve punished me for free-riding so now I’ll punish you just that you know how it feels! And given that I don’t know who the punisher was, I’ll punish all the cooperators who were likely to administer the original punishment in the first place.

I’m less interested in the graphs and the ‘hard’ science than the anecdotal aspects of this post. The author is from Slovakia, and comments:

To get back to Eastern Europe, we’ve used to live under communist regime where all the common causes were appropriated by the state. Any gains from a contribution to a common cause would silently disappear somewhere in the dark corners of the bureaucracy.

Quite the opposite: People felt justified to take stuff from the commons. We even had a saying: “If you don’t steal [from the common property] you are stealing from your family.”

At the same time, stealing from the state was, legally, a crime apart and it was ranked in severity somewhere in the vicinity of murder. You could get ten years in jail if they’ve caught you.

Unsurprisingly, in such an environment, reporting to authorities (i.e. “pro-social punishment”) was regarded as highly unjust — remember the coffee cup example! — and anti-social and there was a strict taboo against it. Ratting often resulted in social ostracism (i.e. “anti-social punishment”). We can still witness that state of affairs in the highly offensive words used to refer to the informers: “udavač”, “donášač”, “práskač”, “špicel”, “fízel” (roughly: “nark”, “rat”, “snoop”, “stool pigeon”).

A perfect example of how the state can cause the co-operation to thrive or dwindle based on governmental policy.

Source: LessWrong

Reappropriating the artifacts of late-stage capitalism

During our inter-railing adventure this summer, we visited Zurich in Switzerland. In one of the parks there, we came across a dockless scooter, which we promptly unlocked and had a great time zooming around.

As you’d expect, the greatest density of dockless bikes and scooters — devices that don’t have to be picked up or returned in any specific place — is in San Francisco. It seems that, in their attempts to flood the city and gain some kind of competitive advantage, VC-backed dockless bike and scooter startups are having an unintended effect. They’re helping homeless people move around the city more easily:

Hoarding and vandalism aren’t the only problems for electric scooter companies. There’s also theft. While the vehicles have GPS tracking, once the battery fully dies they go off the app’s map.

“Every homeless person has like three scooters now,” [Michael Ghadieh, who owns electric bicycle shop, SF Wheels] said. “They take the brains out, the logos off and they literally hotwire it.”

I’ve seen scooters stashed at tent cities around San Francisco. Photos of people extracting the batteries have been posted on Twitter and Reddit. Rumor has it the batteries have a resale price of about $50 on the street, but there doesn’t appear to be a huge market for them on eBay or Craigslist, according to my quick survey.

Source: CNET (via BoingBoing)

Insidious Instagram influencers?

There seems to a lot of pushback at the moment against the kind of lifestyle that’s a direct result of the Silicon Valley mindset. People are rejecting everything from the Instagram ‘influencer’ approach to life to the ‘techbro’-style crazy working hours.

This week saw Basecamp, a company that prides itself on the work/life balance of its employees and on rejecting venture capital, publish another book. You can guess at what it focuses on from its title, It doesn’t have to be crazy at work. I’ve enjoyed and have recommended their previous books (as ’37 Signals’), and am looking forward to reading this latest one.

Alongside that book, I’ve seen three articles that, to me at least, are all related to the same underlying issues. The first comes from Simone Stolzoff who writes in Quartz at Work that we’re no longer quite sure what we’re working for:

Before I became a journalist, I worked in an office with hot breakfast in the mornings and yoga in the evenings. I was #blessed. But I would reflect on certain weeks—after a string of days where I was lured in before 8am and stayed until well after sunset—like a driver on the highway who can’t remember the last five miles of road. My life had become my work. And my work had become a series of rinse-and-repeat days that started to feel indistinguishable from one another.

Part of this lack of work/life balance comes from our inability these days to simply have hobbies, or interests, or do anything just for the sake of it. As Tim Wu points out in The New York Times, it’s all linked some kind of existential issue around identity:

If you’re a jogger, it is no longer enough to cruise around the block; you’re training for the next marathon. If you’re a painter, you are no longer passing a pleasant afternoon, just you, your watercolors and your water lilies; you are trying to land a gallery show or at least garner a respectable social media following. When your identity is linked to your hobby — you’re a yogi, a surfer, a rock climber — you’d better be good at it, or else who are you?

To me, this is inextricably linked to George Monbiot’s recent piece in The Guardian about about the problem of actors being interviewed about the world’s issues disproportionately more often than anybody else. As a result, we’re rewarding those people who look like they know what they’re talking about with our collective attention, rather than those who actually do. Monbiot concludes:

The task of all citizens is to understand what we are seeing. The world as portrayed is not the world as it is. The personification of complex issues confuses and misdirects us, ensuring that we struggle to comprehend and respond to our predicaments. This, it seems, is often the point.

There’s always been a difference between appearance and reality in public life. However, previously, at least they seem to have been two faces of the same coin. These days, our working lives as well as our public lives seem to be

Sources: Basecamp / Quartz at Work / The New York Times / The Guardian

 

The rise and rise of e-sports

I wouldn’t even have bothered clicking on this article if it weren’t for one simple fact: my son can’t get enough of this guy’s YouTube channel.

If you haven’t heard of Ninja, ask the nearest 12-year-old. He shot to fame in March after he and Drake played Fortnite, the video game phenomenon in which 100 players are dropped onto an island and battle to be the last one standing while building forts that are used to both attack and hide from opponents. At its peak, Ninja and Drake’s game, which also featured rapper Travis Scott and Pittsburgh Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, pulled in 630,000 concurrent viewers on Twitch, Amazon’s livestreaming platform, shattering the previous record of 388,000. Since then, Ninja has achieved what no other gamer has before: mainstream fame. With 11 million Twitch followers and climbing, he commands an audience few can dream of. In April, he logged the most social media interactions in the entire sports world, beating out the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Shaquille O’Neal and Neymar.

This article in ESPN is testament to the work that Ninja (a.k.a. Tyler Blevins) has done in crafting a brand and putting in the hours for over a decade. It sounds gruelling:

Tyler can’t join us until he wraps up his six-hour stream. In the basement, past a well-stocked bar, a pool table and a dartboard, next to a foosball table, he sits on this sunny August day in a T-shirt and plaid pajama pants at the most famous space in their house, his gaming setup. It doesn’t look like much — a couple of screens, a fridge full of Red Bull, a mess of wires — but from this modest corner he makes millions by captivating millions.

[…]

In college, Jess [his wife] started streaming to better understand why Tyler would go hours without replying to her texts. A day in, she realized how consuming it was. “It’s physically exhausting but also mentally because you’re sitting there constantly interacting,” Tyler says. “I’m engaging a lot more senses than if I were just gaming by myself. We’re not sitting there doing nothing. I don’t think anyone gets that.”

The reason for sharing this here is because I’m going to use this as an example of deliberate practice.

How does he stay so good? Pro tip: Don’t just play, practice. Ninja competes in about 50 games a day, and he analyzes each and every one. He never gets tired of it, and every loss hits him hard. Hypercompetitive, he makes sure he walks away with at least one win each day. (He averages about 15 and once got 29 in a single day.)

“When I die, I get so upset,” he says. “You can play every single day, you’re not practicing. You die, and oh well, you go onto the next game. When you’re practicing, you’re taking every single match seriously, so you don’t have an excuse when you die. You’re like, ‘I should have rotated here, I should have pushed there, I should have backed off.’ A lot of people don’t do that.”

The article is worth a read, for several reasons. It shows why e-sports are going to be even bigger than regular sports for my children’s generation. It demonstrates how to get to the top in anything you have to put in the time and effort. And, perhaps, above all, it shows that, just as I’ve found, growing up spending time in front of screens can be pretty lucrative.

Source: ESPN

Audiobooks vs reading

Although I listen to a lot of podcasts (here’s my OPML file) I don’t listen to many audiobooks. That’s partly because I never feel up-to-date with my podcast listening, but also because I often read before going to sleep. It’s much more difficult to find your place again if you drift off while listening than while reading!

This article in TIME magazine (is it still a ‘magazine’?) looks at the research into whether listening to an audiobook is like reading using your eyes. Well, first off, it would seem that there’s no difference in recall of facts given a non-fiction text:

For a 2016 study, Rogowsky put her assumptions to the test. One group in her study listened to sections of Unbroken, a nonfiction book about World War II by Laura Hillenbrand, while a second group read the same parts on an e-reader. She included a third group that both read and listened at the same time. Afterward, everyone took a quiz designed to measure how well they had absorbed the material. “We found no significant differences in comprehension between reading, listening, or reading and listening simultaneously,” Rogowsky says.

However, the difficulty here is that there’s already an observed discrepancy in recall between dead-tree books and e-books. So perhaps audiobooks are as good as e-books, but both aren’t as good as printed matter?

There’s a really interesting point made in the article about how dead-tree books allow for a slight ‘rest’ while you’re reading:

If you’re reading, it’s pretty easy to go back and find the point at which you zoned out. It’s not so easy if you’re listening to a recording, Daniel says. Especially if you’re grappling with a complicated text, the ability to quickly backtrack and re-examine the material may aid learning, and this is likely easier to do while reading than while listening. “Turning the page of a book also gives you a slight break,” he says. This brief pause may create space for your brain to store or savor the information you’re absorbing.

This reminds me of an article on Lifehacker a few years ago that quoted a YouTuber who swears by reading a book while also listening to it:

First of all, it combines two senses…so you end up with really good comprehension while being really efficient at the same time. …Another possibly even more important benefit is…it keeps you going. So you’re not going back and rereading things, you’re not taking all kinds of unnecessary breaks and pauses, your eyes aren’t running around all the time, and you’re not getting distracted every two minutes.

Since switching to an open source e-reader, I’m no longer using the Amazon Kindle ecosystem so much these days. If I were, I’d be experimenting with their WhisperSync technology that allows you to either pick up where you left up with one medium — or, indeed, use both at the same time.

Source: TIME / Lifehacker

The Amazon Echo as an anatomical map of human labor, data and planetary resources

This map of what happens when you interact with a digital assistant such as the Amazon Echo is incredible. The image is taken from a length piece of work which is trying to bring attention towards the hidden costs of using such devices.

With each interaction, Alexa is training to hear better, to interpret more precisely, to trigger actions that map to the user’s commands more accurately, and to build a more complete model of their preferences, habits and desires. What is required to make this possible? Put simply: each small moment of convenience – be it answering a question, turning on a light, or playing a song – requires a vast planetary network, fueled by the extraction of non-renewable materials, labor, and data. The scale of resources required is many magnitudes greater than the energy and labor it would take a human to operate a household appliance or flick a switch. A full accounting for these costs is almost impossible, but it is increasingly important that we grasp the scale and scope if we are to understand and govern the technical infrastructures that thread through our lives.

It’s a tour de force. Here’s another extract:

When a human engages with an Echo, or another voice-enabled AI device, they are acting as much more than just an end-product consumer. It is difficult to place the human user of an AI system into a single category: rather, they deserve to be considered as a hybrid case. Just as the Greek chimera was a mythological animal that was part lion, goat, snake and monster, the Echo user is simultaneously a consumer, a resource, a worker, and a product. This multiple identity recurs for human users in many technological systems. In the specific case of the Amazon Echo, the user has purchased a consumer device for which they receive a set of convenient affordances. But they are also a resource, as their voice commands are collected, analyzed and retained for the purposes of building an ever-larger corpus of human voices and instructions. And they provide labor, as they continually perform the valuable service of contributing feedback mechanisms regarding the accuracy, usefulness, and overall quality of Alexa’s replies. They are, in essence, helping to train the neural networks within Amazon’s infrastructural stack.

Well worth a read, especially alongside another article in Bloomberg about what they call ‘oral literacy’ but which I referred to in my thesis as ‘oracy’:

Should the connection between the spoken word and literacy really be so alien to us? After all, starting in the 1950s, basic literacy training in elementary schools in the United States has involved ‘phonics.’ And what is phonics but a way of attaching written words to the sounds they had been or could become? The theory grew out of the belief that all those lines of text on the pages of schoolbooks had become too divorced from their sounds; phonics was intended to give new readers a chance to recognize written language as part of the world of language they already knew.

The technological landscape is reforming what it means to be literate in the 21st century. Interestingly, some of that is a kind of a return to previous forms of human interaction that we used to value a lot more.

Sources: Anatomy of AI and Bloomberg

Tracking vs advertising

We tend to use words to denote something right up to the time that term becomes untenable. Someone has to invent a better one. Take mobile phones, for example. They’re literally named after the least-used app on there, so we’re crying out for a different way to refer to them. Perhaps a better name would be ‘trackers’.

These days, most people use mobile devices for social networking. These are available free at the point of access, funded by what we’re currently calling ‘advertising’. However, as this author notes, it’s nothing of the sort:

What we have today is not advertising. The amount of personally identifiable information companies have about their customers is absolutely perverse. Some of the world’s largest companies are in the business of selling your personal information for use in advertising. This might sound innocuous but the tracking efforts of these companies are so accurate that many people believe that Facebook listens to their conversations to serve them relevant ads. Even if it’s true that the microphone is not used, the sum of all other data collected is still enough to show creepily relevant advertising.

Unfortunately, the author doesn’t seem to have come to the conclusion yet that it’s the logic of capitalism that go us here. Instead, he just points out that people’s privacy is being abused.

[P]eople now get most of their information from social networks yet these networks dictate the order in which content is served to the user. Google makes the worlds most popular mobile operating system and it’s purpose is drive the company’s bottom line (ad blocking is forbidden). “Smart” devices are everywhere and companies are jumping over each other to put more shit in your house so they can record your movements and sell the information to advertisers. This is all a blatant abuse of privacy that is completely toxic to society.

Agreed, and it’s easy to feel a little helpless against this onslaught. While it’s great to have a list of things that users can do, if those things are difficult to implement and/or hard to understand, then it’s an uphill battle.

That being said, the three suggestions he makes are use

To combat this trend, I have taken the following steps and I think others should join the movement:

  • Aggressively block all online advertisements
  • Don’t succumb to the “curated” feeds
  • Not every device needs to be “smart”

I feel I’m already way ahead of the author in this regard:

  • Aggressively block all online advertisements
  • Don’t succumb to the “curated” feeds
    • I quit Facebook years ago, haven’t got an Instagram account, and pretty much only post links to my own spaces on Twitter and LinkedIn.
  • Not every device needs to be “smart”
    • I don’t really use my Philips Hue lights, and don’t have an Amazon Alexa — or even the Google Assistant on my phone).

It’s not easy to stand up to Big Tech. The amount of money they pour into things make their ‘innovations’ seem inevitable. They can afford to make things cheap and frictionless so you get hooked.

As an aside, it’s interesting to note that those that previously defended Apple as somehow ‘different’ on privacy, despite being the world’s most profitable company, are starting to backtrack.

Source: Nicholas Rempel

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

 

On ‘radical incompetence’

One of the reasons I’ve retreated from Twitter since May of last year is the rise of angry politics. I can’t pay attention to everything that’s happening all of the time. And I certainly haven’t got the energy to deal with problems that aren’t materially affecting me or the people I care about.

Brexit, then, is a strange one. On the one hand, I participated in a democratic election to elect a government. Subsequently, a government formed from a party I didn’t vote for called a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. As we all know, the result was close, and based on lies and illegal funding. Nevertheless, perhaps as a citizen I should participate democratically and then get on with my own life.

On the other hand of course, this isn’t politics as usual. There’s been a rise in nationalistic fervour that we haven’t seen since the 1930s. It’s alarming, particularly at a time when smartphones, social media, and the ever-increasing speed of the news cycle make it difficult for citizens to pay sustained attention to anything.

This article in The New York Times zooms out from the particular issues of Trump and Brexit to look at the wider picture. It’s not mentioned specifically in the article, but documentary evidence of struggles around political power and sovereignty goes back at leats to the Magna Carta in England. One way of looking at that is that King John was the Donald Trump of his time, so the barons took power from him.

It’s easy to stand for the opposite of something: you don’t have to do any of the work. All that’s necessary is to point out problems, flaws, and issues with the the person, organisation, or concept that you’re attacking. So demagogues and iconoclasts such as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, whose lack of a coherent position wouldn’t work at any other time, all of a sudden gain credibility in times of upheaval.

Like so many political metaphors, the distinction between “hard” and “soft” is misleading. Any Brexiteer wanting to perform machismo will reach for the “hard” option. But as has become increasingly plain over the past two years, and especially over recent weeks, nobody has any idea what “hard” Brexit actually means in policy terms. It is not so much hard as abstract. “Soft” Brexit might sound weak or halfhearted, but it is also the only policy proposal that might actually work.

What appear on the surface to be policy disputes over Britain’s relationship with Brussels are actually fundamental conflicts regarding the very nature of political power. In this, the arguments underway inside Britain’s Conservative Party speak of a deeper rift within liberal democracies today, which shows no sign of healing. In conceptual terms, this is a conflict between those who are sympathetic to government and those striving to reassert sovereignty.

I’m writing this on the train home from London. I haven’t participated in or seen any of the protests around Trump’s visit to the UK. I have, however, seen plenty of people holding placards and banners, obviously on their way to, or from, a rally.

My concern about getting angry in bite-sized chunks on Twitter or reducing your issues with someone like Trump or Johnson to a placard is that you’re playing them at their own game. They’ll win. They thrive on the oxygen of attention. Cut it off and they’ll whither and be forced to slink off to whatever hole they originally crawled from.

A common thread linking “hard” Brexiteers to nationalists across the globe is that they resent the very idea of governing as a complex, modern, fact-based set of activities that requires technical expertise and permanent officials.

[…]

The more extreme fringes of British conservatism have now reached the point that American conservatives first arrived at during the Clinton administration: They are seeking to undermine the very possibility of workable government. For hard-liners such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, it is an article of faith that Britain’s Treasury Department, the Bank of England and Downing Street itself are now conspiring to deny Britain its sovereignty.

What we’re talking about here is ideology. There’s always been a fundamental difference between the left and the right of politics in a way that’s understood enough not to get into here. But issues around sovereignty, nationalism, and self-determinism actually cut across the traditional political spectrum. That’s why, for example, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British Labour Party, can oppose the EU for vastly different reasons to Jacob Rees-Mogg, arch-Brexiteer.

I haven’t got the energy to go into it here, but to me the crisis in confidence in expertise comes from a warping of the meritocratic system that was supposed to emancipate the working class, break down class structures, and bring forth a fairer society. What’s actually happened is that the political elites have joined with the wealthy to own the means of cultural reproduction. As a result, no-one now seems to trust them.

What happens if sections of the news media, the political classes and the public insist that only sovereignty matters and that the complexities of governing are a lie invented by liberal elites? For one thing, it gives rise to celebrity populists, personified by Mr. Trump, whose inability to engage patiently or intelligently with policy issues makes it possible to sustain the fantasy that governing is simple. What Mr. Johnson terms the “method” in Mr. Trump’s “madness” is a refusal to listen to inconvenient evidence, of the sort provided by officials and experts.

There have been many calls within my lifetime for a ‘new politics’. It’s nearly always a futile project, and just means a changing of the faces on our screens while the political elite continue their machinations. I’m not super-hopeful, but I do perhaps wonder whether our new-found connectedness, if mediated by decentralised technologies, could change that?

Source: The New York Times

On living in public

In this post, Austin Kleon, backpedaling a little from the approach he seemed to promote in Show Your Work!, talks about the problems we all face with ‘living in public’.

It seems ridiculous to say, but 2013, the year I wrote the book, was a simpler time. Social media seemed much more benign to me. Back then, the worst I felt social media did was waste your time. Now, the worst social media does is cripple democracy and ruin your soul.

Kleon quotes Warren Ellis, who writes one of my favourite newsletters (his blog is pretty good, too):

You don’t have to live in public on the internet if you don’t want to. Even if you’re a public figure, or micro-famous like me. I don’t follow anyone on my public Instagram account. No shade on those who follow me there, I’m glad you give me your time – but I need to be in my own space to get my shit done. You want a “hack” for handling the internet? Create private social media accounts, follow who you want and sit back and let your bespoke media channels flow to you. These are tools, not requirements. Don’t let them make you miserable. Tune them until they bring you pleasure.

In May 2017, after being on Twitter over a decade, I deleted my Twitter history, and now delete tweets on a weekly basis. Now, I hang out on a social network that I co-own called social.coop and which is powered by a federated, decentralised service called Mastodon.

I still publish my work, including Thought Shrapnel posts, to Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. It’s just not where I spend most of my time. On balance, I’m happier for it.

Source: Austin Kleon