Tag: technology (page 2 of 11)

Friday flickerings

I’ve tried to include some links here to other things here, but just like all roads read to Rome, all links eventually point to the pandemic.

I hope you and people that you care about are well. Stay safe, stay indoors, and let me know which of the following resonate with you!


Supermensch

Our stories about where inventiveness comes from, and how the future will be made, overwhelmingly focus on the power of the individual. Such stories appeal to the desire for human perfection (and redemption?) recast in technological language, and they were integral to the way that late-19th-century inventor-entrepreneurs, such as Tesla or Thomas Edison, presented themselves to their publics. They’re still very much part of the narrative of technological entrepreneurism now. Just as Tesla wanted to be seen as a kind of superhero of invention, unbound by conventional restraints, so too do his contemporary admirers at the cutting edge of the tech world. Superheroes resonate within that culture precisely because they embody in themselves the perception of technology as something that belongs to powerful and iconoclastic individuals. They epitomise the idea that technological culture is driven by outsiders. The character of Iron Man makes this very clear: after all, he really is a tech entrepreneur, his superpowers the product of the enhanced body armour he wears.

Iwan Rhys Morus (Aeon)

A really interesting read about the link between individualism, superheroes, technology, and innovation.


The Second Golden Age of Blogging

Blogging was then diffused into social media, but now social media is so tribal and algo-regulated that anybody with a real message today needs their own property. At the same time, professional institutions are increasingly suffocated by older, rent-seeking incumbents and politically-correct upstarts using moralism as a career strategy. In such a context, blogging — if it is intelligent, courageous, and consistent — is currently one of the most reliable methods for intellectually sophisticated individuals to accrue social and cultural capital outside of institutions. (Youtube for the videographic, Instagram for the photographic, podcasting for the loquacious, but writing and therefore blogging for the most intellectually sophisticated.)

Justin Murphy (Other LIfe)

I’ve been blogging since around 2004, so for sixteen years, and through all of my career to date. It’s the best and most enjoyable thing about ‘work’.


NASA Fixes Mars Lander By Telling It to Hit Itself With a Shovel

NASA expected its probe, dubbed “the mole,” to dig its way through sand-like terrain. But because the Martian soil clumped together, the whole apparatus got stuck in place.

Programming InSight’s robotic arm to land down on the mole was a risky, last-resort maneuver, PopSci reports, because it risked damaging fragile power and communication lines that attached nearby. Thankfully, engineers spent a few months practicing in simulations before they made a real attempt.

Dan Robitzski (Futurism)

The idea of NASA engineers sending a signal to a distant probe to get it to hit itself, in the midst of a crisis on earth, made me chuckle this week.


Act as if You’re Really There

Don’t turn your office into a generic TV backdrop. Video is boring enough. The more you remove from the frame, the less visual data you are providing about who you are, where you live, how you work, and what you care about. If you were watching a remote interview with, say, Bong Joon-ho (the South Korean director of Parasite) would you want him sitting on a blank set with a ficus plant? Of course not. You would want to see him in his real office or studio. What are the posters on his wall? The books on his shelf? Who are his influences?

Douglas Rushkoff (OneZero)

Useful advice in this post from Douglas Rushkoff. I appreciate his reflection that, “every pixel is a chance to share information about your process and proclivities.”


People Are Looping Videos to Fake Paying Attention in Zoom Meetings

On Twitter, people are finding ways to use the Zoom Rooms custom background feature to slap an image of themselves in their frames. You can record a short, looping video as your background, or take a photo of yourself looking particularly attentive, depending on the level of believability you’re going for. Zoom says it isn’t using any kind of video or audio analysis to track attention, so this is mostly for your human coworkers and boss’ sake. With one of these images on your background, you’re free to leave your seat and go make a sandwich while your boss thinks you’re still there paying attention:

Samantha Cole (Vice)

As an amusing counterpoint to the above article, I find it funny that people are using video backgrounds in this way!


A Guide to Hosting Virtual Events with Zoom

There are lots of virtual event tools out there, like Google Hangouts, YouTube Live, Vimeo Live. For this guide I’ll delve into how to use Zoom specifically. However, a lot of the best practices explored here are broadly applicable to other tools. My goal is that reading this document will give you all the tools you need to be able to set up a meeting and host it on Zoom (or other platforms) in fun and interactive ways.

Alexa Kutler (Google Docs)

This is an incredible 28-page document that explains how to set up Zoom meetings for success. Highly recommended!


The rise of the bio-surveillance state

Elements of Asia’s bio-surveillance revolution may not be as far off as citizens of Western democracies assume. On 24 March an emergency bill, which would relax limits on urgent surveillance warrants, went before the House of Lords. In any case, Britain’s existing Investigatory Powers Act already allows the state to seize mobile data if national security justifies it. In another sign that a new era in data rights is dawning, the EU is reviewing its recent white paper on AI regulation and delaying a review of online privacy rules. Researchers in both Britain (Oxford) and the US (MIT) are developing virus-tracking apps inviting citizens to provide movement data voluntarily. How desperate would the search for “needles in haystacks” have to get for governments to make such submissions compulsory? Israel’s draconian new regulations – which allegedly include tapping phone cameras and microphones – show how far down this road even broadly Western democracies might go to save lives and economies.

Jeremy Cliffe (New Statesman)

We need urgent and immediate action around the current criss. But we also need safeguards and failsafes so that we don’t end up with post-pandemic authoritarian regimes.


The economy v our lives? It’s a false choice – and a deeply stupid one

Soon enough, as hospitals around the world overflow with coronavirus patients, exhausting doctors, nurses, orderlies, custodians, medical supplies, ventilators and hospital cash accounts, doctors will have to make moral choices about who lives or dies. We should not supersede their judgment based on a false choice. Economic depression will come, regardless of how many we let die. The question is how long and devastating it will be.

Siva Vaidhyanathan (The Guardian)

Not exactly a fun read, but the truth is the world’s economy is shafted no matter which way we look at it. And as I tweeted the other day, there’s no real thing that exists, objectively speaking called ‘the economy’ which is separate from human relationships.


How the Pandemic Will End

Pandemics can also catalyze social change. People, businesses, and institutions have been remarkably quick to adopt or call for practices that they might once have dragged their heels on, including working from home, conference-calling to accommodate people with disabilities, proper sick leave, and flexible child-care arrangements. “This is the first time in my lifetime that I’ve heard someone say, ‘Oh, if you’re sick, stay home,’” says Adia Benton, an anthropologist at Northwestern University. Perhaps the nation will learn that preparedness isn’t just about masks, vaccines, and tests, but also about fair labor policies and a stable and equal health-care system. Perhaps it will appreciate that health-care workers and public-health specialists compose America’s social immune system, and that this system has been suppressed.

Ed Yong (The Atlantic)

Much of this is a bit depressing, but I’ve picked up on the more positive bit towards the end. See also the article I wrote earlier this week: People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character


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Header image by Sincerely Media.

Friday filchings

I’m having to write this ahead of time due to travel commitments. Still, there’s the usual mixed bag of content in here, everything from digital credentials through to survival, with a bit of panpsychism thrown in for good measure.

Did any of these resonate with you? Let me know!


Competency Badges: the tail wagging the dog?

Recognition is from a certain point of view hyperlocal, and it is this hyperlocality that gives it its global value – not the other way around. The space of recognition is the community in which the competency is developed and activated. The recognition of a practitioner in a community is not reduced to those generally considered to belong to a “community of practice”, but to the intersection of multiple communities and practices, starting with the clients of these practices: the community of practice of chefs does not exist independently of the communities of their suppliers and clients. There is also a very strong link between individual recognition and that of the community to which the person is identified: shady notaries and politicians can bring discredit on an entire community.

Serge Ravet

As this roundup goes live I’ll be at Open Belgium, and I’m looking forward to catching up with Serge while I’m there! My take on the points that he’s making in this (long) post is actually what I’m talking about at the event: open initiatives need open organisations.


Universities do not exist ‘to produce students who are useful’, President says

Mr Higgins, who was opening a celebration of Trinity College Dublin’s College Historical Debating Society, said “universities are not there merely to produce students who are useful”.

“They are there to produce citizens who are respectful of the rights of others to participate and also to be able to participate fully, drawing on a wide range of scholarship,” he said on Monday night.

The President said there is a growing cohort of people who are alienated and “who feel they have lost their attachment to society and decision making”.

Jack Horgan-Jones (The Irish Times)

As a Philosophy graduate, I wholeheartedly agree with this, and also with his assessment of how people are obsessed with ‘markets’.


Perennial philosophy

Not everyone will accept this sort of inclusivism. Some will insist on a stark choice between Jesus or hell, the Quran or hell. In some ways, overcertain exclusivism is a much better marketing strategy than sympathetic inclusivism. But if just some of the world’s population opened their minds to the wisdom of other religions, without having to leave their own faith, the world would be a better, more peaceful place. Like Aldous Huxley, I still believe in the possibility of growing spiritual convergence between different religions and philosophies, even if right now the tide seems to be going the other way.

Jules Evans (Aeon)

This is an interesting article about the philosophy of Aldous Huxley, whose books have always fascinated me. For some reason, I hadn’t twigged that he was related to Thomas Henry Huxley (aka “Darwin’s bulldog”).


Photo by Scott Webb
Photo by Scott Webb

What the Death of iTunes Says About Our Digital Habits

So what really failed, maybe, wasn’t iTunes at all—it was the implicit promise of Gmail-style computing. The explosion of cloud storage and the invention of smartphones both arrived at roughly the same time, and they both subverted the idea that we should organize our computer. What they offered in its place was a vision of ease and readiness. What the idealized iPhone user and the idealized Gmail user shared was a perfect executive-functioning system: Every time they picked up their phone or opened their web browser, they knew exactly what they wanted to do, got it done with a calm single-mindedness, and then closed their device. This dream illuminated Inbox Zero and Kinfolk and minimalist writing apps. It didn’t work. What we got instead was Inbox Infinity and the algorithmic timeline. Each of us became a wanderer in a sea of content. Each of us adopted the tacit—but still shameful—assumption that we are just treading water, that the clock is always running, and that the work will never end.

Robinson Meyer (The Atlantic)

This is curiously-written (and well-written) piece, in the form of an ordered list, that takes you through the changes since iTunes launched. It’s hard to disagree with the author’s arguments.


Imagine a world without YouTube

But what if YouTube had failed? Would we have missed out on decades of cultural phenomena and innovative ideas? Would we have avoided a wave of dystopian propaganda and misinformation? Or would the internet have simply spiraled into new — yet strangely familiar — shapes, with their own joys and disasters?

Adi Robertson (The Verge)

I love this approach of imagining how the world would have been different had YouTube not been the massive success it’s been over the last 15 years. Food for thought.


Big Tech Is Testing You

It’s tempting to look for laws of people the way we look for the laws of gravity. But science is hard, people are complex, and generalizing can be problematic. Although experiments might be the ultimate truthtellers, they can also lead us astray in surprising ways.

Hannah Fry (The New Yorker)

A balanced look at the way that companies, especially those we classify as ‘Big Tech’ tend to experiment for the purposes of engagement and, ultimately, profit. Definitely worth a read.


Photo by David Buchi
Photo by David Buchi

Trust people, not companies

The trend to tap into is the changing nature of trust. One of the biggest social trends of our time is the loss of faith in institutions and previously trusted authorities. People no longer trust the Government to tell them the truth. Banks are less trusted than ever since the Financial Crisis. The mainstream media can no longer be trusted by many. Fake news. The anti-vac movement. At the same time, we have a generation of people who are looking to their peers for information.

Lawrence Lundy (Outlier Ventures)

This post is making the case for blockchain-based technologies. But the wider point is a better one, that we should trust people rather than companies.


The Forest Spirits of Today Are Computers

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature. Agriculture de-wilded the meadows and the forests, so that even a seemingly pristine landscape can be a heavily processed environment. Manufactured products have become thoroughly mixed in with natural structures. Now, our machines are becoming so lifelike we can’t tell the difference. Each stage of technological development adds layers of abstraction between us and the physical world. Few people experience nature red in tooth and claw, or would want to. So, although the world of basic physics may always remain mindless, we do not live in that world. We live in the world of those abstractions.

George Musser (Nautilus)

This article, about artificial ‘panpsychism’ is really challenging to the reader’s initial assumptions (well, mine at least) and really makes you think.


The man who refused to freeze to death

It would appear that our brains are much better at coping in the cold than dealing with being too hot. This is because our bodies’ survival strategies centre around keeping our vital organs running at the expense of less essential body parts. The most essential of all, of course, is our brain. By the time that Shatayeva and her fellow climbers were experiencing cognitive issues, they were probably already experiencing other organ failures elsewhere in their bodies.

William Park (BBC Future)

Not just one story in this article, but several with fascinating links and information.


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Header image by Tim Mossholder.

Friday flurries

It’s been a busy week, but I’ve still found time to unearth these gems…

  • The Dark Psychology of Social Networks (The Atlantic) — “The philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke have proposed the useful phrase moral grandstanding to describe what happens when people use moral talk to enhance their prestige in a public forum. Like a succession of orators speaking to a skeptical audience, each person strives to outdo previous speakers, leading to some common patterns. Grandstanders tend to “trump up moral charges, pile on in cases of public shaming, announce that anyone who disagrees with them is obviously wrong, or exaggerate emotional displays.” Nuance and truth are casualties in this competition to gain the approval of the audience. Grandstanders scrutinize every word spoken by their opponents—and sometimes even their friends—for the potential to evoke public outrage. Context collapses. The speaker’s intent is ignored.”
  • Live Your Best Life—On and Off Your Phone—in 2020 (WIRED) — “It’s your devices versus your best life. Just in time for a new decade, though, several fresh books offer a more measured approach to living in the age of technology. These are not self-help books, or even books that confront our relationship with technology head-on. Instead, they examine the realities of a tech-saturated world and offer a few simple ideas for rewriting bad habits, reviewing the devices we actually need, and relearning how to listen amid all the noise.”
  • People Who Are Obsessed With Success and Prestige (Bennett Notes) — “What does it look like to be obsessed with success and prestige? It probably looks a lot like me at the moment. A guy who starts many endeavors and side projects just because he wants to be known as the creator of something. This a guy who wants to build another social app, not because he has an unique problem that’s unaddressed, but because he wants to be the cool tech entrepreneur who everyone admires and envies. This is a guy who probably doesn’t care for much of what he does, but continues to do so for the eventual social validation of society and his peers.”
  • The Lesson to Unlearn (Paul Graham) — “Merely talking explicitly about this phenomenon is likely to make things better, because much of its power comes from the fact that we take it for granted. After you’ve noticed it, it seems the elephant in the room, but it’s a pretty well camouflaged elephant. The phenomenon is so old, and so pervasive. And it’s simply the result of neglect. No one meant things to be this way. This is just what happens when you combine learning with grades, competition, and the naive assumption of unhackability.”
  • The End of the Beginning (Stratechery) — “[In consumer-focused startups] few companies are pure “tech” companies seeking to disrupt the dominant cloud and mobile players; rather, they take their presence as an assumption, and seek to transform society in ways that were previously impossible when computing was a destination, not a given. That is exactly what happened with the automobile: its existence stopped being interesting in its own right, while the implications of its existence changed everything.”
  • Populism Is Morphing in Insidious Ways (The Atlantic) — “If the 2010s were the years in which predominantly far-right, populist parties permeated the political mainstream, then the 2020s will be when voters “are going to see the consequences of that,” Daphne Halikiopoulou, an associate professor of comparative politics at the University of Reading, in England, told me.”
  • It’s the network, stupid: Study offers fresh insight into why we’re so divided (Ars Technica) — “There is no easy answer when it comes to implementing structural changes that encourage diversity, but today’s extreme polarization need not become a permanent characteristic of our cultural landscape. “I think we need to adopt new skills as we are transitioning into a more complex, more globalized, and more interconnected world, where each of us can affect far-away parts of the world with our actions,” said Galesic.”
  • Memorizing Lists of Cognitive Biases Won’t Help (Hapgood) — “But if you want to change your own behavior, memorizing long lists of biases isn’t going to help you. If anything it’s likely to just become another weapon in your motivated reasoning arsenal. You can literally read the list of biases to see why reading the list won’t work.”
  • How to get more done by doing less (Fast Company) — “Sometimes, the secret to doing more isn’t optimizing every minute, but finding the things you can cull from your schedule. That way, you not only reduce the time you spend on non-essential tasks, but you can also find more time for yourself.”

Image via xkcd

Friday fertilisations

I’ve read so much stuff over the past couple of months that it’s been a real job whittling down these links. In the end I gave up and shared a few more than usual!

  • You Shouldn’t Have to Be Good at Your Job (GEN) — “This is how the 1% justifies itself. They are not simply the best in terms of income, but in terms of humanity itself. They’re the people who get invited into the escape pods when the mega-asteroid is about to hit. They don’t want a fucking thing to do with the rest of the population and, in fact, they have exploited global economic models to suss out who deserves to be among them and who deserves to be obsolete. And, thanks to lax governments far and wide, they’re free to practice their own mass experiments in forced Darwinism. You currently have the privilege of witnessing a worm’s-eye view of this great culling. Fun, isn’t it?”
  • We’ve spent the decade letting our tech define us. It’s out of control (The Guardian) — “There is a way out, but it will mean abandoning our fear and contempt for those we have become convinced are our enemies. No one is in charge of this, and no amount of social science or monetary policy can correct for what is ultimately a spiritual deficit. We have surrendered to digital platforms that look at human individuality and variance as “noise” to be corrected, rather than signal to be cherished. Our leading technologists increasingly see human beings as a problem, and technology as the solution – and they use our behavior on their platforms as evidence of our essentially flawed nature.”
  • How headphones are changing the sound of music (Quartz) — “Another way headphones are changing music is in the production of bass-heavy music. Harding explains that on small speakers, like headphones or those in a laptop, low frequencies are harder to hear than when blasted from the big speakers you might encounter at a concert venue or club. If you ever wondered why the bass feels so powerful when you are out dancing, that’s why. In order for the bass to be heard well on headphones, music producers have to boost bass frequencies in the higher range, the part of the sound spectrum that small speakers handle well.”
  • The False Promise of Morning Routines (The Atlantic) — “Goat milk or no goat milk, the move toward ritualized morning self-care can seem like merely a palliative attempt to improve work-life balance.It makes sense to wake up 30 minutes earlier than usual because you want to fit in some yoga, an activity that you enjoy. But something sinister seems to be going on if you feel that you have to wake up 30 minutes earlier than usual to improve your well-being, so that you can also work 60 hours a week, cook dinner, run errands, and spend time with your family.”
  • Giant surveillance balloons are lurking at the edge of space (Ars Technica) — “The idea of a constellation of stratospheric balloons isn’t new—the US military floated the idea back in the ’90s—but technology has finally matured to the point that they’re actually possible. World View’s December launch marks the first time the company has had more than one balloon in the air at a time, if only for a few days. By the time you’re reading this, its other stratollite will have returned to the surface under a steerable parachute after nearly seven weeks in the stratosphere.”
  • The Unexpected Philosophy Icelanders Live By (BBC Travel) — “Maybe it makes sense, then, that in a place where people were – and still are – so often at the mercy of the weather, the land and the island’s unique geological forces, they’ve learned to give up control, leave things to fate and hope for the best. For these stoic and even-tempered Icelanders, þetta reddast is less a starry-eyed refusal to deal with problems and more an admission that sometimes you must make the best of the hand you’ve been dealt.”
  • What Happens When Your Career Becomes Your Whole Identity (HBR) — “While identifying closely with your career isn’t necessarily bad, it makes you vulnerable to a painful identity crisis if you burn out, get laid off, or retire. Individuals in these situations frequently suffer anxiety, depression, and despair. By claiming back some time for yourself and diversifying your activities and relationships, you can build a more balanced and robust identity in line with your values.”
  • Having fun is a virtue, not a guilty pleasure (Quartz) — “There are also, though, many high-status workers who can easily afford to take a break, but opt instead to toil relentlessly. Such widespread workaholism in part reflects the misguided notion that having fun is somehow an indulgence, an act of absconding from proper respectable behavior, rather than embracement of life. “
  • It’s Time to Get Personal (Laura Kalbag) — “As designers and developers, it’s easy to accept the status quo. The big tech platforms already exist and are easy to use. There are so many decisions to be made as part of our work, we tend to just go with what’s popular and convenient. But those little decisions can have a big impact, especially on the people using what we build.”
  • The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade (Hack Education) — “Oh yes, I’m sure you can come up with some rousing successes and some triumphant moments that made you thrilled about the 2010s and that give you hope for “the future of education.” Good for you. But that’s not my job. (And honestly, it’s probably not your job either.)”
  • Why so many Japanese children refuse to go to school (BBC News) — “Many schools in Japan control every aspect of their pupils’ appearance, forcing pupils to dye their brown hair black, or not allowing pupils to wear tights or coats, even in cold weather. In some cases they even decide on the colour of pupils’ underwear. “
  • The real scam of ‘influencer’ (Seth Godin) — “And a bigger part is that the things you need to do to be popular (the only metric the platforms share) aren’t the things you’d be doing if you were trying to be effective, or grounded, or proud of the work you’re doing.”

Image via Kottke.org

Microcast #079 – information environments

This week’s microcast is about information environments, the difference between technical and ‘people’ skills, and sharing your experience.

Show notes

Friday flowerings

Did you see these things this week?

  • Happy 25th year, blogging. You’ve grown up, but social media is still having a brawl (The Guardian) — “The furore over social media and its impact on democracy has obscured the fact that the blogosphere not only continues to exist, but also to fulfil many of the functions of a functioning public sphere. And it’s massive. One source, for example, estimates that more than 409 million people view more than 20bn blog pages each month and that users post 70m new posts and 77m new comments each month. Another source claims that of the 1.7 bn websites in the world, about 500m are blogs. And WordPress.com alone hosts blogs in 120 languages, 71% of them in English.”
  • Emmanuel Macron Wants to Scan Your Face (The Washington Post) — “President Emmanuel Macron’s administration is set to be the first in Europe to use facial recognition when providing citizens with a secure digital identity for accessing more than 500 public services online… The roll-out is tainted by opposition from France’s data regulator, which argues the electronic ID breaches European Union rules on consent – one of the building blocks of the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation laws – by forcing everyone signing up to the service to use the facial recognition, whether they like it or not.”
  • This is your phone on feminism (The Conversationalist) — “Our devices are basically gaslighting us. They tell us they work for and care about us, and if we just treat them right then we can learn to trust them. But all the evidence shows the opposite is true. This cognitive dissonance confuses and paralyses us. And look around. Everyone has a smartphone. So it’s probably not so bad, and anyway, that’s just how things work. Right?”
  • Google’s auto-delete tools are practically worthless for privacy (Fast Company) — “In reality, these auto-delete tools accomplish little for users, even as they generate positive PR for Google. Experts say that by the time three months rolls around, Google has already extracted nearly all the potential value from users’ data, and from an advertising standpoint, data becomes practically worthless when it’s more than a few months old.”
  • Audrey Watters (Uses This) — “For me, the ideal set-up is much less about the hardware or software I am using. It’s about the ideas that I’m thinking through and whether or not I can sort them out and shape them up in ways that make for a good piece of writing. Ideally, that does require some comfort — a space for sustained concentration. (I know better than to require an ideal set up in order to write. I’d never get anything done.)”
  • Computer Files Are Going Extinct (OneZero) — “Files are skeuomorphic. That’s a fancy word that just means they’re a digital concept that mirrors a physical item. A Word document, for example, is like a piece of paper, sitting on your desk(top). A JPEG is like a painting, and so on. They each have a little icon that looks like the physical thing they represent. A pile of paper, a picture frame, a manila folder. It’s kind of charming really.”
  • Why Technologists Fail to Think of Moderation as a Virtue and Other Stories About AI (The LA Review of Books) — “Speculative fiction about AI can move us to think outside the well-trodden clichés — especially when it considers how technologies concretely impact human lives — through the influence of supersized mediators, like governments and corporations.”
  • Inside Mozilla’s 18-month effort to market without Facebook (Digiday) — “The decision to focus on data privacy in marketing the Mozilla brand came from research conducted by the company four years ago into the rise of consumers who make values-based decisions on not only what they purchase but where they spend their time.”
  • Core human values not eyeballs (Cubic Garden) — “Theres so much more to do, but the aims are high and important for not just the BBC, but all public service entities around the world. Measuring the impact and quality on peoples lives beyond the shallow meaningless metrics for public service is critical.”

Image: The why is often invisible via Jessica Hagy’s Indexed

Technology is the name we give to stuff that doesn’t work properly yet

So said my namesake Douglas Adams. In fact, he said lots of wise things about technology, most of them too long to serve as a title.

I’m in a weird place, emotionally, at the moment, but sometimes this can be a good thing. Being taken out of your usual ‘autopilot’ can be a useful way to see things differently. So I’m going to take this opportunity to share three things that, to be honest, make me a bit concerned about the next few years…

Attempts to put microphones everywhere

Alexa-enabled EVERYTHING

In an article for Slate, Shannon Palus ranks all of Amazon’s new products by ‘creepiness’. The Echo Frames are, in her words:

A microphone that stays on your person all day and doesn’t look like anything resembling a microphone, nor follows any established social codes for wearable microphones? How is anyone around you supposed to have any idea that you are wearing a microphone?

Shannon Palus

When we’re not talking about weapons of mass destruction, it’s not the tech that concerns me, but the context in which the tech is used. As Palus points out, how are you going to be able to have a ‘quiet word’ with anyone wearing glasses ever again?

It’s not just Amazon, of course. Google and Facebook are at it, too.

Full-body deepfakes

Scary stuff

With the exception, perhaps, of populist politicians, I don’t think we’re ready for a post-truth society. Check out the video above, which shows Chinese technology that allows for ‘full body deepfakes’.

The video is embedded, along with a couple of others in an article for Fast Company by DJ Pangburn, who also notes that AI is learning human body movements from videos. Not only will you be able to prank your friends by showing them a convincing video of your ability to do 100 pull-ups, but the fake news it engenders will mean we can’t trust anything any more.

Neuromarketing

If you clicked on the ‘super-secret link’ in Sunday’s newsletter, you will have come across STEALING UR FEELINGS which is nothing short of incredible. As powerful as it is in showing you the kind of data that organisations have on us, it’s the tip of the iceberg.

Kaveh Waddell, in an article for Axios, explains that brains are the last frontier for privacy:

“The sort of future we’re looking ahead toward is a world where our neural data — which we don’t even have access to — could be used” against us, says Tim Brown, a researcher at the University of Washington Center for Neurotechnology.

Kaveh Waddell

This would lead to ‘neuromarketing’, with advertisers knowing what triggers and influences you better than you know yourself. Also, it will no doubt be used for discriminatory purposes and, because it’s coming directly from your brainwaves, short of literally wearing a tinfoil hat, there’s nothing much you can do.


So there we are. Am I being too fearful here?

It’s not a revolution if nobody loses

Thanks to Clay Shirky for today’s title. It’s true, isn’t it? You can’t claim something to be a true revolution unless someone, some organisation, or some group of people loses.

I’m happy to say that it’s the turn of some older white men to be losing right now, and particularly delighted that those who have spent decades abusing and repressing people are getting their comeuppance.

Enough has been written about Epstein and the fallout from it. You can read about comments made by Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, in this Washington Post article. I’ve only met RMS (as he’s known) in person once, at the Indie Tech Summit five years ago, but it wasn’t a great experience. While I’m willing to cut visionary people some slack, he mostly acted like a jerk.

RMS is a revered figure in Free Software circles and it’s actually quite difficult not to agree with his stance on many political and technological matters. That being said, he deserves everything he gets though for the comments he made about child abuse, for the way he’s treated women for the past few decades, and his dictator-like approach to software projects.

In an article for WIRED entitled Richard Stallman’s Exit Heralds a New Era in Tech, Noam Cohen writes that we’re entering a new age. I certainly hope so.

This is a lesson we are fast learning about freedom as it promoted by the tech world. It is not about ensuring that everyone can express their views and feelings. Freedom, in this telling, is about exclusion. The freedom to drive others away. And, until recently, freedom from consequences.

After 40 years of excluding those who didn’t serve his purposes, however, Stallman finds himself excluded by his peers. Freedom.

Maybe freedom, defined in this crude, top-down way, isn’t the be-all, end-all. Creating a vibrant inclusive community, it turns out, is as important to a software project as a coding breakthrough. Or, to put it in more familiar terms—driving away women, investing your hopes in a single, unassailable leader is a critical bug. The best patch will be to start a movement that is respectful, inclusive, and democratic.

Noam Cohen

One of the things that the next leaders of the Free Software Movement will have to address is how to take practical steps to guarantee our basic freedoms in a world where Big Tech provides surveillance to ever-more-powerful governments.

Cory Doctorow is an obvious person to look to in this regard. He has a history of understanding what’s going on and writing about it in ways that people understand. In an article for The Globe and Mail, Doctorow notes that a decline in trust of political systems and experts more generally isn’t because people are more gullible:

40 years of rising inequality and industry consolidation have turned our truth-seeking exercises into auctions, in which lawmakers, regulators and administrators are beholden to a small cohort of increasingly wealthy people who hold their financial and career futures in their hands.

[…]

To be in a world where the truth is up for auction is to be set adrift from rationality. No one is qualified to assess all the intensely technical truths required for survival: even if you can master media literacy and sort reputable scientific journals from junk pay-for-play ones; even if you can acquire the statistical literacy to evaluate studies for rigour; even if you can acquire the expertise to evaluate claims about the safety of opioids, you can’t do it all over again for your city’s building code, the aviation-safety standards governing your next flight, the food-safety standards governing the dinner you just ordered.

Cory Doctorow

What’s this got to do with technology, and in particular Free Software?

Big Tech is part of this problem… because they have monopolies, thanks to decades of buying nascent competitors and merging with their largest competitors, of cornering vertical markets and crushing rivals who won’t sell. Big Tech means that one company is in charge of the social lives of 2.3 billion people; it means another company controls the way we answer every question it occurs to us to ask. It means that companies can assert the right to control which software your devices can run, who can fix them, and when they must be sent to a landfill.

These companies, with their tax evasion, labour abuses, cavalier attitudes toward our privacy and their completely ordinary human frailty and self-deception, are unfit to rule our lives. But no one is fit to be our ruler. We deserve technological self-determination, not a corporatized internet made up of five giant services each filled with screenshots from the other four.

Cory Doctorow

Doctorow suggests breaking up these companies to end their de facto monopolies and level the playing field.

The problem of tech monopolies is something that Stowe Boyd explored in a recent article entitled Are Platforms Commons? Citing previous precedents around railroads, Boyd has many questions, including whether successful platforms be bound with the legal principles of ‘common carriers’, and finishes with this:

However, just one more question for today: what if ecosystems were constructed so that they were governed by the participants, rather by the hypercapitalist strivings of the platform owners — such as Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook — or the heavy-handed regulators? Is there a middle ground where the needs of the end user and those building, marketing, and shipping products and services can be balanced, and a fair share of the profits are distributed not just through common carrier laws but by the shared economics of a commons, and where the platform orchestrator gets a fair share, as well? We may need to shift our thinking from common carrier to commons carrier, in the near future.

Stowe Boyd

The trouble is, simply establishing a commons doesn’t solve all of the problems. In fact, what tends to happen next is well known:

The tragedy of the commons is a situation in a shared-resource system where individual users, acting independently according to their own self-interest, behave contrary to the common good of all users, by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action.

Wikipedia

An article in The Economist outlines the usual remedies to the ‘tragedy of the commons’: either governmental regulation (e.g. airspace), or property rights (e.g. land). However, the article cites the work of Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel prizewinning economist, showing that another way is possible:

An exclusive focus on states and markets as ways to control the use of commons neglects a varied menagerie of institutions throughout history. The information age provides modern examples, for example Wikipedia, a free, user-edited encyclopedia. The digital age would not have dawned without the private rewards that flowed to successful entrepreneurs. But vast swathes of the web that might function well as commons have been left in the hands of rich, relatively unaccountable tech firms.

[…]

A world rich in healthy commons would of necessity be one full of distributed, overlapping institutions of community governance. Cultivating these would be less politically rewarding than privatisation, which allows governments to trade responsibility for cash. But empowering commoners could mend rents in the civic fabric and alleviate frustration with out-of-touch elites.

The Economist

I count myself as someone on the left of politics, if that’s how we’re measuring things today. However, I don’t think we need representation at any higher level than is strictly necessary.

In a time when technology allows you, to a great extent, to represent yourself, perhaps we need ways of demonstrating how complex and multi-faceted some issues are? Perhaps we need to try ‘liquid democracy‘:

Liquid democracy lies between direct and representative democracy. In direct democracy, participants must vote personally on all issues, while in representative democracy participants vote for representatives once in certain election cycles. Meanwhile, liquid democracy does not depend on representatives but rather on a weighted and transitory delegation of votes. Liquid democracy through elections can empower individuals to become sole interpreters of the interests of the nation. It allows for citizens to vote directly on policy issues, delegate their votes on one or multiple policy areas to delegates of their choosing, delegate votes to one or more people, delegated to them as a weighted voter, or get rid of their votes’ delegations whenever they please.

WIkipedia

I think, given the state that politics is in right now, it’s well worth a try. The problem, of course, is that the losers would be the political elites, the current incumbents. But, hey, it’s not a revolution if nobody loses, right?

If you change nothing, nothing will change

What would you do if you knew you had 24 hours left to live? I suppose it would depend on context. Is this catastrophe going to affect everyone, or only you? I’m not sure I’d know what to do in the former case, but once I’d said my goodbyes to my family, I’m pretty sure I know what I’d do in the latter.

Yep, I would go somewhere by myself and write.

To me, the reason both reading and writing can feel so freeing is that they allow you to mentally escape your physical constraints. It almost doesn’t matter what’s happening to your body or anything around you while you lose yourself in someone else’s words, or you create your own.


I came across an interesting blog recently. It had a single post, entitled Consume less, create more. In it, the author, ‘Tom’, explains that the 1,600 words he’s shared were written over the course of a month after he realised that he was spending his life consuming instead of creating.

A lot of ink has been spilled about the perils of modern technology. How it distracts us, how it promotes unhealthy comparisons with others, how it makes us fat, how it limits social interaction, how it spies on us. And all of these things are probably true, to some extent.

But the real tragedy of modern technology is that it’s turned us into consumers. Our voracious consumption of media parallels our consumption of fossil fuels, corn syrup, and plastic straws. And although we’re starting to worry about our consumption of those physical goods, we seem less concerned about our consumption of information.

We treat information as necessarily good, and comfort ourselves with the feeling that whatever article or newsletter we waste our time with is actually good for us. We equate reading with self improvement, even though we forget most of what we’ve read, and what we remember isn’t useful.

TJCX

I feel that at this juncture in history, we’ve perfected surveillance-via-smartphone as the perfect tool to maximise FOMO. For those growing up in the goldfish bowl of the modern world, this may feel as normal as the ‘water’ in which they are ‘swimming’. But for the rest of us, it can still feel… odd.

This is going to sound pretty amazing, but I don’t think there’s been many days in my adult life when I’ve been able to go somewhere without anyone else knowing. As a kid? Absolutely. I can vividly remember, for example, cycling to a corn field and finding a place to lie down and look at the sky, knowing that no-one could see me. It was time spent with myself, unmediated and unfiltered.

This didn’t used to be unusual. People had private inner lives that were manifested in private actions. In a recent column in The Guardian, Grace Dent expanded on this.

Yes life after iPhones is marvellous, but in the 90s I ran wild across London, up to all kinds of no good, staying out for days, keeping my own counsel entirely. My parents up north would not speak to me for weeks. Sometimes, life back in the days when we had one shit Nokia and a landline between five friends seems blissful. One was permitted lost weekends and periods of secret skulduggery or just to lie about reading a paperback without the sense six people were owed a text message. Yes, things took longer, and one needed to make plans and keep them, but being off the grid was normal. Today, not replying… is a truly radical act.

Grace Dent

“Not replying… is a truly radical act”. Wow. Let that sink in for a moment.


Given all this, it’s no wonder in our always-on culture that we have so much ‘life admin’ to concern ourselves with. Previous generations may have had ‘pay the bills’ on their to-do list, but it wasn’t nudged down the to-do list by ‘inform a person I kind of know on Twitter that they have incorrect view on Brexit’.

All of these things build upon incrementally until they eventually become unsustainable. It’s death by a thousand cuts. As I’ve quoted many times before before, Jocelyn K. Glei’s question is always worth asking: who are you without the doing?


Realistically, most of our days are likely to involve some use of digital communication tools. We can’t always be throwing off our shackles to live the life of a flâneur. To facilitate space to create, therefore, it’s important to draw some red lines. This is what Michael Bernstein talks about in Sorry, we can’t join your Slack.

Saying yes to joining client Slack channels would mean that down the line we’d feel more exhausted but less accomplished. We’d have more superficial “friends,” but wouldn’t know how to deal with products much better than we did now. We’d be on the hook all the time, and have less of an opportunity to consider our responses.

Michael Bernstein

In other words, being more available and more ‘social’ takes time away from more important pursuits. After all, time is the ultimate zero-sum game.


Ultimately, I guess it’s about learning to see the world differently. There very well be a ‘new normal’ that we’ve begun to internalise but, for now at least, we have a choice to use to our advantage that ‘flexibility’ we hear so much about.

This is why self-reflection is so important, as Wanda Thibodeaux explains in an article for Inc.

In sum, elimination of stress and the acceptance of peace comes not necessarily from changing the world, but rather from clearing away all the learned clutter that prevents us from changing our view of the world. Even the biggest systemic “realities” (e.g., work “HAS” to happen from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) are up for reinterpretation and rewriting, and arguably, inner calm and innovation both stem from the same challenge of perceptions.

Wanda Thibodeaux

To do this, you have to have to already have decided the purpose for which you’re using your tools, including the ones provided by your smartphone.

Need more specific advice on that? I suggest you go and read this really handy post by Ryan Holiday: A Radical Guide to Spending Less Time on Your Phone. The advice to be focused on which apps you need on your phone is excellent; I deleted over 100!

You may also find this post useful that I wrote over on my blog a few months ago about how changing the ‘launcher’ on your phone can change your life.


If you make some changes after reading this, I’d be interested in hearing how you get on. Let me know in the comments section below!


Quotation-as-title from Rajkummar Rao.

The best way out is always through

So said Robert Frost, but I want to begin with the ending of a magnificent post from Kate Bowles. She expresses clearly how I feel sometimes when I sit down to write something for Thought Shrapnel:

[T]his morning I blocked out time, cleared space, and sat down to write — and nothing happened. Nothing. Not a word, not even a wisp of an idea. After enough time staring at the blankness of the screen I couldn’t clearly remember having had an idea, ever.

Along the way I looked at the sky, I ate a mandarin and then a second mandarin, I made a cup of tea, I watched a family of wrens outside my window, I panicked. I let email divert me, and then remembered that was the opposite of the plan. I stayed off Twitter. Panic increased.

Then I did the one thing that absolutely makes a difference to me. I asked for help. I said “I write so many stupid words in my bullshit writing job that I can no longer write and that is the end of that.” And the person I reached out to said very calmly “Why not write about the thing you’re thinking about?”

Sometimes what you have to do as a writer is sit in place long enough, and sometimes you have to ask for help. Whatever works for you, is what works.

Kate Bowles

There are so many things wrong with the world right now, that sometimes I feel like I could stop working on all of the things I’m working on and spend time just pointing them out to people.

But to what end? You don’t change the world by just making people aware of things, not usually. For example, as tragic as the sentence, “the Amazon is on fire” is, it isn’t in and of itself a call-to-action. These days, people argue about the facts themselves as well as the appropriate response.

The world is an inordinately complicated place that we seek to make sense of by not thinking as much as humanly possible. To aid and abet us in this task, we divide ourselves, either consciously or unconsciously, into groups who apply similar heuristics. The new (information) is then assimilated into the old (worldview).

I have no privileged position, no objective viewpoint in which to observe and judge the world’s actions. None of us do. I’m as complicit in joining and forming in and out groups as the next person. I decide I’m going to delete my Twitter account and then end up rage-tweeting All The Things.

Thankfully, there are smart people, and not only academics, thinking about all this to figure out what we can and should do. Tim Urban, from the phenomenally-successful Wait But Why, for example, has spent the last three years working on “a new language we can use to think and talk about our societies and the people inside of them”. In the first chapter in a new series, he writes about the ongoing struggle between (what he calls) the ‘Primitive Minds’ and ‘Higher Minds’ of humans:

The never-ending struggle between these two minds is the human condition. It’s the backdrop of everything that has ever happened in the human world, and everything that happens today. It’s the story of our times because it’s the story of all human times.

Tim Urban

I think this is worth remembering when we spend time on social networks. And especially when we spend so much time that it becomes our default delivery method for the news of the day. Our Primitive Minds respond strongly to stimuli around fear and fornication.

When we reflect on our social media usage and the changing information landscape, the temptation is either to cut down, or to try a different information diet. Some people become the equivalent of Information Vegans, attempting to source the ‘cleanest’ morsels of information from the most wholesome, trusted, and traceable of places.

But where are those ‘trusted places’ these days? Are we as happy with the previously gold-standard news outlets such as the BBC and The New York Times as we once were? And if not, what’s changed?

The difference, I think, is the way we’ve decided to allow money to flow through our digital lives. Commercial news outlets, including those with which the BBC competes, are funded by advertising. Those adverts we see in digital spaces aren’t just showing things that we might happen to be interested in. They’ll keep on showing you that pair of shoes you almost bought last week in every space that is funded by advertising. Which is basically everywhere.

I feel like I’m saying obvious things here that everyone knows, but perhaps it bears repeating. If everyone is consuming news via social networks, and those news stories are funded by advertising, then the nature of what counts as ‘news’ starts to evolve. What gets the most engagement? How are headlines formed now, compared with a decade ago?

It’s as if something hot-wires our brain when something non-threatening and potentially interesting is made available to us ‘for free’. We never get to the stuff that we’d like to think defines us, because we caught in neverending cycles of titillation. We pay with our attention, that scarce and valuable resource.

Our attention, and more specifically, how we react to our social media feeds when we’re ‘engaged’ is valuable because it can be packaged up and sold to advertisers. But it’s also sold to governments too. Twitter just had to update their terms and conditions specifically because of the outcry over the Chinese government’s propaganda around the Hong Kong protests.

Protesters part of the ‘umbrella revolution’ in Hong Kong have recently been focusing on cutting down what we used to call CCTV cameras, but which are much more accurately described as ‘facial recognition masts’:

We are living in a world where the answer to everything seems to be ‘increased surveillance’. Kids not learning fast enough in school? Track them more. Scared of terrorism? Add more surveillance into the lives of everyday citizens. And on and on.

In an essay earlier this year, Maciej Cegłowski riffed on all of this, reflecting on what he calls ‘ambient privacy’:

Because our laws frame privacy as an individual right, we don’t have a mechanism for deciding whether we want to live in a surveillance society. Congress has remained silent on the matter, with both parties content to watch Silicon Valley make up its own rules. The large tech companies point to our willing use of their services as proof that people don’t really care about their privacy. But this is like arguing that inmates are happy to be in jail because they use the prison library. Confronted with the reality of a monitored world, people make the rational decision to make the best of it.

That is not consent.

Ambient privacy is particularly hard to protect where it extends into social and public spaces outside the reach of privacy law. If I’m subjected to facial recognition at the airport, or tagged on social media at a little league game, or my public library installs an always-on Alexa microphone, no one is violating my legal rights. But a portion of my life has been brought under the magnifying glass of software. Even if the data harvested from me is anonymized in strict conformity with the most fashionable data protection laws, I’ve lost something by the fact of being monitored.

Maciej Cegłowski

One of the difficulties in resisting the ‘Silicon Valley narrative’ and Big Tech’s complicity with governments is the danger of coming across as a neo-luddite. Without looking very closely to understand what’s going on (and having some time to reflect) it can all look like the inevitable march of progress.

So, without necessarily an answer to all this, I guess the best thing is, like Kate, to ask for help. What can we do here? What practical steps can we take? Comments are open.

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