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Let’s (not) let children get bored again

Is boredom a good thing? Is there a direct link between having nothing to do and being creative? I’m not sure. Pamela Paul, writing in The New York Times, certainly thinks so:

[B]oredom is something to experience rather than hastily swipe away. And not as some kind of cruel Victorian conditioning, recommended because it’s awful and toughens you up. Despite the lesson most adults learned growing up — boredom is for boring people — boredom is useful. It’s good for you.

Paul doesn’t give any evidence beyond anecdote for boredom being ‘good for you’. She gives a post hoc argument stating that because someone’s creative life came after (what they remembered as) a childhood punctuated by boredom, the boredom must have caused the creativity.

I don’t think that’s true at all. You need space to be creative, but that space isn’t physical, it’s mental. You can carve it out in any situation, whether that’s while watching a TV programme or staring out of a window.

For me, the elephant in the room here is the art of parenting. Not a week goes by without the media beating up parents for not doing a good enough job. This is particularly true of the bizarre concept of ‘screentime’ (something that Ian O’Byrne and Kristen Turner are investigating as part of a new project).

In the article, Paul admits that previous generations ‘underparented’. However, in her article she creates a false dichotomy between that and ‘relentless’ modern helicopter parents. Where’s the happy medium that most of us inhabit?

Only a few short decades ago, during the lost age of underparenting, grown-ups thought a certain amount of boredom was appropriate. And children came to appreciate their empty agendas. In an interview with GQ magazine, Lin-Manuel Miranda credited his unattended afternoons with fostering inspiration. “Because there is nothing better to spur creativity than a blank page or an empty bedroom,” he said.

Nowadays, subjecting a child to such inactivity is viewed as a dereliction of parental duty. In a much-read story in The Times, “The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting,” Claire Cain Miller cited a recent study that found that regardless of class, income or race, parents believed that “children who were bored after school should be enrolled in extracurricular activities, and that parents who were busy should stop their task and draw with their children if asked.”

So parents who provide for their children by enrolling them in classes and activities to explore and develop their talents are somehow doing them a disservice? I don’t get it. Fair enough if they’re forcing them into those activities, but I don’t know too many parents who are doing that.

Ultimately, Paul and I have very different expectations and experiences of adult life. I don’t expect to be bored whether at work our out of it. There’s so much to do in the world, online and offline, that I don’t particularly get the fetishisation of boredom. To me, as soon as someone uses the word ‘realistic’, they’ve lost the argument:

But surely teaching children to endure boredom rather than ratcheting up the entertainment will prepare them for a more realistic future, one that doesn’t raise false expectations of what work or life itself actually entails. One day, even in a job they otherwise love, our kids may have to spend an entire day answering Friday’s leftover email. They may have to check spreadsheets. Or assist robots at a vast internet-ready warehouse.

This sounds boring, you might conclude. It sounds like work, and it sounds like life. Perhaps we should get used to it again, and use it to our benefit. Perhaps in an incessant, up-the-ante world, we could do with a little less excitement.

No, perhaps we should make more engaging, and provide more than bullshit jobs. Perhaps we should seek out interesting things ourselves, so that our children do likewise?

Source: The New York Times

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

At the end of the day, everything in life is a ‘group project’

Everything is a group project

I like to surround myself with doers, people who are happy, like me, to roll their sleeves up and get stuff done. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of people in life who seem to busy themselves with putting up roadblocks and finding ways why their participation isn’t possible.

Source: Indexed

Make art, tell a story

As detailed here, our co-op decided last week to lift our sights, expand our vision, and represent ourselves more holistically.

So when I stumbled upon Paul Jarvis’ post on the importance of making art, it really chimed with me:

What makes the content you create awesome is that it’s a story told through your unique lens. It’s you, telling a story. It’s you not giving a fuck about anything but telling that story. It doesn’t matter if it’s a blog post about banking software or a video on how to make nut milk, the content will be better if you let your real personality shine.

He gives some specific tips in the short post, which is definitely worth your time.

From my point of view with Thought Shrapnel, I don’t track open rates, etc. because it means I can focus on what I’m interested in, rather than whatever I can get people to click on.

Source: Paul Jarvis

Fun smartphone-based party games

At our co-op meetup last week, once we’d got business out of the way for the day, we decided to play some games. Bryan‘s got a projector in his living room which he can hook up to his laptop, and he invited us all to create a Kahoot! quiz. We then played each others’ quizzes, which was fun.

Back at home, I’d already introduced my two children to AirConsole, which they use to play games using their tablets as controllers. I searched for games we could play on the big screen without having to download anything and the first one we played was called Multeor. This involves each player controlling a ‘meteor’ which destroys things to collect points.

Multeor

A list I found on Reddit was also useful, although some of them are games that have to be purchased via the Steam marketplace. We played Spaceteam which, appropriately enough for our meetup describes itself  as “a cooperative shouting game for phones and tablets”. It didn’t require the project, and was great fun. I even played it with my wife when I got home!

While I’m on the subject of games, Laura introduced me to Paddle Force, which our former Mozilla colleagues Bobby Richter and Luke Pacholski created. It’s like Pong on steroids, and my children love it! Luke’s also created Pixel Drift, which reminds me a lot of playing Super Off Road at the arcades as a kid!

Cal Newport on the dangers of ‘techno-maximalism’

I have to say that I was not expecting to enjoy Cal Newport’s book Deep Work when I read it a couple of years ago. As someone who’s always been fascinated by technology, and who has spent most of his career working in and around it, I assume it was going to contain the approach of a Luddite working in his academic ivory tower.

It turns out I was completely wrong in this assumption, and the book was one of the best I read in 2017. Newport is back with a new book that I’ve eagerly pre-ordered called Digital Minimalism: On Living Better with Less Technology. It comes out next week. Again, the title is something that would usually be off-putting to me, but it’s hard to argue about the points that he makes in his blog posts since Deep Work.

As you would expect with a new book coming out, Newport is doing the rounds of interviews. In one with GQ magazine, he talks about the dangers of ‘digital maximalism’, which he defines in the following way:

The basic idea is that technological innovations can bring value and convenience into your life. So, you assess new technological tools with respect to what value or convenience it can bring into your life. And if you can find one, then the conclusion is, “If I can afford it, I should probably have this.” It just looks at the positives. And it’s view is “more is better than less,” because more things that bring you benefits means more total benefits. This is what maximalism is: “If there’s something that brings value, you should get it.”

That type of thinking is dangerous, as:

We see these tools, and we have this narrative that, “You can do this on Facebook,” or “This new feature on this device means you can do this, which would be convenient.” What you don’t factor in is, “Okay, well what’s the cost in terms of my time attention required to have this device in my life?” Facebook might have some particular thing that’s valuable, but then you have the average U.S. user spending something like 50 minutes a day on Facebook products. That’s actually a pretty big [amount of life] that you’re now trading in order to get whatever the potential small benefit is.

[Maximalism] ignores the opportunity cost. And as Thoreau pointed out hundreds of years ago, it’s actually in the opportunity cost that all the interesting math happens.

Newport calls for a new philosophy of technology which includes things like ‘digital minimalism’ (the subject of his new book):

Digital minimalism is a clear philosophy: you figure out what’s valuable to you. For each of these things you say, “What’s the best way I need to use technology to support that value?” And then you happily miss out on everything else. It’s about additively building up a digital life from scratch to be very specifically, intentionally designed to make your life much better.

There might be other philosophies, just like in health in fitness. More important to me than everyone becoming a digital minimalist, is people in general getting used to this idea that, “I have a philosophy that’s really clear and grounded in my values that tells me how I approach technology.” Moving past this ad-hoc stage of like, “Whatever, I just kind of signed up for maximalist stage,” and into something a little bit more intentional.

I’ve never really the type of person to go to a book club, but what with this coming out and Company of One by Paul Jarvis arriving yesterday, perhaps I need to set up a virtual one?

Source: GQ

"If you do the task before you always adhering to strict reason with zeal and energy and yet with humanity, disregarding all lesser ends and keeping the divinity within you pure and upright, as though you were even now faced with its recall — if you hold steadily to this, staying for nothing and shrinking from nothing, only seeking in each passing action a conformity with nature and in each word and utterance a fearless truthfulness, then shall the good life be yours. And from this course no man has the power to hold you back."

(Marcus Aurelius)

Through the looking-glass

Earlier this month, George Dyson, historian of technology and author of books including Darwin Among the Machines, published an article at Edge.org.

In it, he cites Childhood’s End, a story by Arthur C. Clarke in which benevolent overlords arrive on earth. “It does not end well”, he says. There’s lots of scaremongering in the world at the moment and, indeed, some people have said for a few years now that software is eating the world.

Dyson comments:

The genius — sometimes deliberate, sometimes accidental — of the enterprises now on such a steep ascent is that they have found their way through the looking-glass and emerged as something else. Their models are no longer models. The search engine is no longer a model of human knowledge, it is human knowledge. What began as a mapping of human meaning now defines human meaning, and has begun to control, rather than simply catalog or index, human thought. No one is at the controls. If enough drivers subscribe to a real-time map, traffic is controlled, with no central model except the traffic itself. The successful social network is no longer a model of the social graph, it is the social graph. This is why it is a winner-take-all game. Governments, with an allegiance to antiquated models and control systems, are being left behind.

I think that’s an insightful point: human knowledge is seen to be that indexed by Google, friendships are mediated by Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and to some extent what possible/desirable/interesting is dictated to us rather than originating from us.

We imagine that individuals, or individual algorithms, are still behind the curtain somewhere, in control. We are fooling ourselves. The new gatekeepers, by controlling the flow of information, rule a growing sector of the world.

What deserves our full attention is not the success of a few companies that have harnessed the powers of hybrid analog/digital computing, but what is happening as these powers escape into the wild and consume the rest of the world

Indeed. We need to raise our sights a little here and start asking governments to use their dwindling powers to break up mega corporations before Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook are too powerful to stop. However, given how enmeshed they are in everyday life, I’m not sure at this point it’s reasonable to ask the general population to stop using their products and services.

Source: Edge.org

Surfacing popular Google Sheets to create simple web apps

I was struck by the huge potential impact of this idea from Marcel van Remmerden:

Here is a simple but efficient way to spot Enterprise Software ideas — just look at what Excel sheets are being circulated over emails inside any organization. Every single Excel sheet is a billion-dollar enterprise software business waiting to happen.

I searched “google sheet” education and “google sheet” learning on Twitter just now and, within about 30 seconds found:

Google Sheet example 1

…and:

Google Sheet example 2

…and:

Google Sheet example 3

These are all examples of things that could (and perhaps should) be simple web apps.In the article, van Remmerden explains how he created a website based on someone else’s Google Sheet (with full attribution) and started generating revenue.

It’s a little-known fact outside the world of developers that Google Sheets can serve as a very simple database for web applications. So if you’ve got an awkward web-based spreadsheet that’s being used by lots of people in your organisation, maybe it’s time to productise it?

Source: Marcel van Remmerden

Federico Leggio’s type animations

These type animations by Federico Leggio, a freelance graphic designer based in Sicily, are incredible:

To inifinity and

Twist

New horizons

Source: Federico Leggio (via Dense Discovery)