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

Human societies, hierarchy, and networks

Human societies and cultures are complex and messy. That means if we want to even begin to start understanding them, we need to simplify. This approach from Harold Jarche, based on David Ronfeldt’s work, is interesting:

Our current triform society is based on families/communities, a public sector, and a private market sector. But this form, dominated by Markets is unable to deal with the complexities we face globally — climate change, pollution, populism/fanaticism, nuclear war, etc. A quadriform society would be primarily guided by the Network form of organizing. We are making some advances in that area but we still have challenges getting beyond nation states and financial markets.

This diagram sums up why I find it so difficult to work within hierarchies: while they’re our default form of organising, they’re just not very good at dealing with complexity.

Source: Harold Jarche

Why the internet is less weird these days

I can remember sneakily accessing the web when I was about fifteen. It was a pretty crazy place, the likes of which you only really see these days in the far-flung corners of the regular internet or on the dark web.

Back then, there were conspiracy theories, there was porn, and there was all kinds of weirdness and wonderfulness that I wouldn’t otherwise have experienced growing up in a northern mining town. Some of it may have been inappropriate, but in the main it opened my eyes to the wider world.

In this Engadget article, Violet Blue points out that the demise of the open web means we’ve also lost meaningful free speech:

It’s critical… to understand that apps won, and the open internet lost. In 2013, most users accessing the internet went to mobile and stayed that way. People don’t actually browse the internet anymore, and we are in a free-speech nightmare.

Because of Steve Jobs, adult and sex apps are super-banned from Apple’s conservative walled garden. This, combined with Google’s censorious push to purge its Play Store of sex has quietly, insidiously formed a censored duopoly controlled by two companies that make Morality in Media very, very happy. Facebook, even though technically a darknet, rounded it out.

A very real problem for society at the moment is that we simultaneously want to encourage free-thinking and diversity while at the same time protecting people from distasteful content. I’m not sure what the answer is, but outsourcing the decision to tech companies probably isn’t the answer.

In 1997, Ann Powers wrote an essay called “In Defense of Nasty Art.” It took progressives to task for not defending rap music because it was “obscene” and sexually graphic. Powers puts it mildly when she states, “Their apprehension makes the fight to preserve freedom of expression seem hollow.” This is an old problem. So it’s no surprise that the same websites forbidding, banning, and blocking “sexually suggestive” art content also claim to care about free speech.

As a parent of a 12 year-old boy and eight year-old girl, I check the PEGI age ratings for the games they play. I also trust Common Sense Media to tell me about the content of films they want to watch, and I’m careful about what they can and can’t access on the web.

Violet Blue’s article is a short one, so focuses on the tech companies, but the real issue here is one level down. The problem is neoliberalism. As Byung-Chul Han comments in Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Powerwhich I’m reading at the moment:

Neoliberalism represents a highly efficient, indeed an intelligent, system for exploiting freedom. Everything that belongs to practices and expressive forms of liberty –emotion, play and communication –comes to be exploited.

Almost everything is free at the point of access these days, which means, in the oft-repeated phrase, that we are the product. This means that in order to extract maximum value, nobody can be offended. I’m not so sure that I want to live in an inoffensive future.

Source: Engadget (via Noticing)

The robot economy and social-emotional skills

Ben Williamson writes:

The steady shift of the knowledge economy into a robot economy, characterized by machine learning, artificial intelligence, automation and data analytics, is now bringing about changes in the ways that many influential organizations conceptualize education moving towards the 2020s. Although this is not an epochal or decisive shift in economic conditions, but rather a slow metamorphosis involving machine intelligence in the production of capital, it is bringing about fresh concerns with rethinking the purposes and aims of education as global competition is increasingly linked to robot capital rather than human capital alone.

A plethora of reports and pronouncements by ‘thought-leaders’ and think tanks warn us about a medium-term future where jobs are ‘under threat’. This has a concomitant impact on education:

The first is that education needs to de-emphasize rote skills of the kind that are easy for computers to replace and stress instead more digital upskilling, coding and computer science. The second is that humans must be educated to do things that computerization cannot replace, particularly by upgrading their ‘social-emotional skills’.

A few years ago, I remember asking someone who ran different types of coding bootcamps which would be best approach for me. Somewhat conspiratorially, he told me that I didn’t need to learn to code, I just needed to learn how to manage those who do the coding. As robots and AI become more sophisticated and can write their own programs, I suspect this ‘management’ will include non-human actors.

Of all of the things I’ve had to learn for and during my (so-called) career, the hardest has been gaining the social-emotional skills to work remotely. This isn’t an easy thing to unpack, especially when we’re all encouraged to have a ‘mission’ in life and to be emotionally invested in our work.

Williams notes:

The OECD’s Andreas Schleicher is especially explicit about the perceived strategic importance of cultivating social-emotional skills to work with artificial intelligence, writing that ‘the kinds of things that are easy to teach have become easy to digitise and automate. The future is about pairing the artificial intelligence of computers with the cognitive, social and emotional skills, and values of human beings’.

Moreover, he casts this in clearly economic terms, noting that ‘humans are in danger of losing their economic value, as biological and computer engineering make many forms of human activity redundant and decouple intelligence from consciousness’. As such, human emotional intelligence is seen as complementary to computerized artificial intelligence, as both possess complementary economic value. Indeed, by pairing human and machine intelligence, economic potential would be maximized.

[…]

The keywords of the knowledge economy have been replaced by the keywords of the robot economy. Even if robotization does not pose an immediate threat to the future jobs and labour market prospects of students today, education systems are being pressured to change in anticipation of this economic transformation.

I’m less bothered about Schleicher’s link between social-emotional skills and the robot economy. I reckon that, no matter what time period you live in, there are knowledge and skills you need to be successful when interacting with other human beings.

That being said, there are ways of interacting with machines that are important to learn to get ahead. I stand by what I said in 2013 about the importance of including computational thinking in school curricula. To me, education is about producing healthy, engaged citizens. They need to understand the world around them, be (digitally) confident in it, and have the conceptual tools to be able to problem-solve.

Source: Code Acts in Education

Remembering the past through photos

A few weeks ago, I bought a Google Assistant-powered smart display and put it in our kitchen in place of the DAB radio. It has the added bonus of cycling through all of my Google Photos, which stretch back as far as when my wife and I were married, 15 years ago.

This part of its functionality makes it, of course, just a cloud-powered digital photo frame. But I think it’s possible to underestimate the power that these things have. About an hour before composing this post, for example, my wife took a photo of a photo(!) that appeared on the display showing me on the beach with our two children when they were very small.

An article by Giuliana Mazzoni in The Conversation points out that our ability to whip out a smartphone at any given moment and take a photo changes our relationship to the past:

We use smart phones and new technologies as memory repositories. This is nothing new – humans have always used external devices as an aid when acquiring knowledge and remembering.

[…]

Nowadays we tend to commit very little to memory – we entrust a huge amount to the cloud. Not only is it almost unheard of to recite poems, even the most personal events are generally recorded on our cellphones. Rather than remembering what we ate at someone’s wedding, we scroll back to look at all the images we took of the food.

Mazzoni points out that this can be problematic, as memory is important for learning. However, there may be a “silver lining”:

Even if some studies claim that all this makes us more stupid, what happens is actually shifting skills from purely being able to remember to being able to manage the way we remember more efficiently. This is called metacognition, and it is an overarching skill that is also essential for students – for example when planning what and how to study. There is also substantial and reliable evidence that external memories, selfies included, can help individuals with memory impairments.

But while photos can in some instances help people to remember, the quality of the memories may be limited. We may remember what something looked like more clearly, but this could be at the expense of other types of information. One study showed that while photos could help people remember what they saw during some event, they reduced their memory of what was said.

She goes on to discuss the impact that viewing many photos from your past has on a malleable sense of self:

Research shows that we often create false memories about the past. We do this in order to maintain the identity that we want to have over time – and avoid conflicting narratives about who we are. So if you have always been rather soft and kind – but through some significant life experience decide you are tough – you may dig up memories of being aggressive in the past or even completely make them up.

I’m not so sure that it’s a good thing to tell yourself the wrong story about who you are. For example, although I grew up in, and identified with, a macho ex-mining town environment, I’ve become happier by realising that my identify is separate to that.

I suppose it’s a bit different for me, as most of the photos I’m looking at are of me with my children and/or my wife. However, I still have to tell myself a story of who I am as a husband and a father, so in many ways it’s the same.

All in all, I love the fact that we can take photos anywhere and at any time. We may need to evolve social norms around the most appropriate ways of capturing images in crowded situations, but that’s separate to the very great benefit which I believe they bring us.

Source: The Conversation

The endless Black Friday of the soul

This article by Ruth Whippman appears in the New York Times, so focuses on the US, but the main thrust is applicable on a global scale:

When we think “gig economy,” we tend to picture an Uber driver or a TaskRabbit tasker rather than a lawyer or a doctor, but in reality, this scrappy economic model — grubbing around for work, all big dreams and bad health insurance — will soon catch up with the bulk of America’s middle class.

Apparently, 94% of the jobs created in the last decade are freelancer or contract positions. That’s the trajectory we’re on.

Almost everyone I know now has some kind of hustle, whether job, hobby, or side or vanity project. Share my blog post, buy my book, click on my link, follow me on Instagram, visit my Etsy shop, donate to my Kickstarter, crowdfund my heart surgery. It’s as though we are all working in Walmart on an endless Black Friday of the soul.

[…]

Kudos to whichever neoliberal masterminds came up with this system. They sell this infinitely seductive torture to us as “flexible working” or “being the C.E.O. of You!” and we jump at it, salivating, because on its best days, the freelance life really can be all of that.

I don’t think this is a neoliberal conspiracy, it’s just the logic of capitalism seeping into every area of society. As we all jockey for position in the new-ish landscape of social media, everything becomes mediated by the market.

What I think’s missing from this piece, though, is a longer-term trend towards working less. We seem to be endlessly concerned about how the nature of work is changing rather than the huge opportunities for us to do more than waste away in bullshit jobs.

I’ve been advising anyone who’ll listen over the last few years that reducing the number of days you work has a greater impact on your happiness than earning more money. Once you reach a reasonable salary, there’s diminishing returns in any case.

Source: The New York Times (via Dense Discovery)

Looking back and forward in tech

Looking back at 2018, Amber Thomas commented that, for her, a few technologies became normalised over the course of the year:

  1. Phone payments
  2. Voice-controlled assistants
  3. Drones
  4. Facial recognition
  5. Fingerprints

Apart from drones, I’ve spent the last few years actively avoiding the above. In fact, I spent most of 2018 thinking about decentralised technology, privacy, and radical politics.

However, December is always an important month for me. I come off social media, stop blogging, and turn another year older just before Christmas. It’s a good time to reflect and think about what’s gone before, and what comes next.

Sometimes, it’s possible to identify a particular stimulus to a change in thinking. For me, it was while I was watching Have I Got News For You and the panellists were shown a photo of a fashion designer who put a shoe in front of their face to avoid being recognisable. Paul Merton asked, “doesn’t he have a passport?”

Obvious, of course, but I’d recently been travelling and using the biometric features of my passport. I’ve also relented this year and use the fingerprint scanner to unlock my phone. I realised that the genie isn’t going back in the bottle here, and that everyone else was using my data — biometric or otherwise — so I might as well benefit, too.

Long story short, I’ve bought a Google Pixelbook and Lenovo Smart Display over the Christmas period which I’ll be using in 2019 to my life easier. I’m absolutely trading privacy for convenience, but it’s been a somewhat frustrating couple of years trying to use nothing but Open Source tools.

I’ll have more to say about all of this in due course, but it’s worth saying that I’m still committed to living and working openly. And, of course, I’m looking forward to continuing to work on MoodleNet.

Source: Fragments of Amber

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