Tag: technology (page 1 of 11)

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:

When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other

Graphic showing a hospital, face masks, and hand washing

😷 How do pandemics end?

🙆 How I talk to the victims of conspiracy theories

🔒 The Github youtube-dl Takedown Isn’t Just a Problem of American Law

🖥️ The Raspberry Pi 400 – Teardown and Review

🐧 As a former social media analyst, I’m quitting Twitter


Quotation-as-title by Eric Hoffer. Image from top-linked post.

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

😍 Drone Awards 2020: the world seen from above

😷 Adequate Vitamin D Levels Cuts Risk Of Dying From Covid-19 In Half, Study Finds

🔊 The BBC is releasing over 16,000 sound effects for free download

👍 Proposal would give EU power to boot tech giants out of European market

🎧 The Hidden Costs of Streaming Music


Quotation-as-title by George Sand. Image from top-linked post.

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

Saturday signalings

I’ve been head-down doing lots of work this week, and then it’s been Bank Holiday weekend, so my reading has been pretty much whatever my social media feeds have thrown up!

There’s broadly three sections here, though: stuff about the way we think, about technology, and about ways of working. Enjoy!


How Clocks Changed Humanity Forever, Making Us Masters and Slaves of Time

The article with the above embedded video is from five years ago, but someone shared it on my Twitter timeline and it reminded me of something. When I taught my History students about the Industrial Revolution it blew their minds that different parts of the country could be, effectively, on different ‘timezones’ until the dawn of the railways.

It just goes to show how true it is that first we shape our tools, and then they shape us.


‘Allostatic Load’ is the Psychological Reason for Our Pandemic Brain Fog

“Uncertainty is one of the biggest elements that contributes to our experience of stress,” said Lynn Bufka, the senior director of Practice, Research, and Policy at the American Psychological Association. “Part of what we try to do to function in our society is to have some structure, some predictability. When we have those kinds of things, life feels more manageable, because you don’t have to put the energy into figuring those things out.”

Emily Baron Cadloff (VICE)

A short but useful article on why despite having grand plans, it’s difficult to get anything done in our current situation. We can’t even plan holidays at the moment.


Most of the Mind Can’t Tell Fact from Fiction

The industrialized world is so full of human faces, like in ads, that we forget that it’s just ink, or pixels on a computer screen. Every time our ancestors saw something that looked like a human face, it probably was one. As a result, we didn’t evolve to distinguish reality from representation. The same perceptual machinery interprets both.

Jim Davies (Nautilus)

A useful reminder that our brain contains several systems, some of which are paleolithic.


Wright Flier and Bell Rocket Belt

Not even wrong: ways to predict tech

The Wright Flier could only go 200 meters, and the Rocket Belt could only fly for 21 seconds. But the Flier was a breakthrough of principle. There was no reason why it couldn’t get much better, very quickly, and Blériot flew across the English Channel just six years later. There was a very clear and obvious path to make it better. Conversely, the Rocket Belt flew for 21 seconds because it used almost a litre of fuel per second – to fly like this for half a hour you’d need almost two tonnes of fuel, and you can’t carry that on your back. There was no roadmap to make it better without changing the laws of physics. We don’t just know that now – we knew it in 1962.

Benedict Evans

A useful post about figuring out whether something will happen or be successful. The question is “what would have to change?”


Grandmother ordered to delete Facebook photos under GDPR

The case went to court after the woman refused to delete photographs of her grandchildren which she had posted on social media. The mother of the children had asked several times for the pictures to be deleted.

The GDPR does not apply to the “purely personal” or “household” processing of data. However, that exemption did not apply because posting photographs on social media made them available to a wider audience, the ruling said.

“With Facebook, it cannot be ruled out that placed photos may be distributed and may end up in the hands of third parties,” it said.

The woman must remove the photos or pay a fine of €50 (£45) for every day that she fails to comply with the order, up to a maximum fine of €1,000.

BBC News

I think this is entirely reasonable, and I’m hoping we’ll see more of this until people stop thinking they can sharing the personally identifiable information of others whenever and however they like.


Developing new digital skills – is training always the answer?

Think ESKiMO:

– Environment (E) – are the reasons its not happening outside of the control of the people you identified in Step 1? Do they have the resources, the tools, the funding? Do their normal objectives mean that they have to prioritise other things? Does the prevailing organisational culture work against achieving the goals?

– Skills (S) – Are they aware of the tasks they need to do and enabled to do them?

– Knowledge (K) – is the knowledge they need available to them? It could either be information they have to carry around in their heads, or just be available in a place they know about.

– Motivation (Mo) – Do they have the will to carry it out?

The last three (S,K, Mo) work a little bit like the fire triangle from that online fire safety training you probably had to do this year. All three need to be present for new practice to happen and to be sustainable.

Chris Thomson (Jisc)

In this post, Chris Thomson, who I used to work with at Jisc, challenges the notion that training is about getting people to do what you want. Instead, this ESKiMO approach asks why they’re not already doing it.


xkcd: estimating time

Leave Scrum to Rugby, I Like Getting Stuff Done

Within Scrum, estimates have a primary purpose – to figure out how much work the team can accomplish in a given sprint. If I were to grant that Sprints were a good idea (which I obviously don’t believe) then the description of estimates in the official Scrum guide wouldn’t be a problem.

The problem is that estimates in practice are a bastardization of reality. The Scrum guide is vague on the topic so managers take matters into their own hands.

Lane Wagner (Qvault)

I’m a product manager, and I find it incredible that people assume that ‘agile’ is the same as ‘Scrum’. If you’re trying to shoehorn the work you do into a development process then, to my mind, you’re doing it wrong.

As with the example below, it’s all about something that works for your particular context, while bearing in mind the principles of the agile manifesto.


How I trick my well developed procrastination skills

The downside of all those nice methods and tools is that you have to apply them, which can be of course, postponed as well. Thus, the most important step is to integrate your tool or todo list in your daily routine. Whenever you finish a task, or you’re thinking what to do next, the focus should be on your list. For example, I figured out that I always click on one link in my browser favourites (a news website) or an app on my mobile phone (my email app). Sometimes I clicked hundred times a day, even though, knowing that there can’t be any new emails, as I checked one minute ago. Maybe you also developed such a “useless” habit which should be broken or at least used for something good. So I just replaced the app on my mobile and the link in my browser with my Remember The Milk app which shows me the tasks I have to do today. If you have just a paper-based solution it might be more difficult but try to integrate it in your daily routines, and keep it always in reach. After finishing a task, you should tick it in your system, which also forces you to have a look at the task list again.

Wolfgang Gassler

Some useful pointers in this post, especially at the end about developing and refining your own system that depends on your current context.


The Great Asshole Fallacy

The focus should be on the insistence of excellence, both from yourself and from those around you. The wisdom from experience. The work ethic. The drive. The dedication. The sacrifice. Jordan hits on all of those. And he even implies that not everyone needed the “tough love” to push them. But that’s glossed over for the more powerful mantra. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that not only are there other ways to tease such greatness out of people — different people require different methods.

M.G. Siegler (500ish)

I like basketball, and my son plays, but I haven’t yet seen the documentary mentioned in this post. The author discusses Michael Jordan stating that “Winning has a price. And leadership has a price.” However, he suggests that this isn’t the only way to get to excellence, and I would agree.


Header image by Romain Briaux

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.

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

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

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

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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