My gadgets and I

Its difficult not to think about digital culture after reading Jaron Lanier‘s book You are not a Gadget. He captures me at once with his discussion on how we are locked into our technological settings by previous design decisions. These decisions may not be the best but they might have been the best at the time. To overcome their flaws we build work-arounds and use more power but at the heart of the system lie flaws which are limiting us and controlling our ability to develop.

The problem, according to Lanier, is that we continued to develop our gadgets and became so impressed with them that two things happened. First we began to think that the gadgets we actually doing the work (computer beats chess player) and not realizing that it was the programmers et al doing the work (programming team & chess experts together beat chess player). Second the popularity of gadgets and applications were not increasing our freedom and development. The iPad & Facebook (just to pick 2) are not freeing us but limiting our choices of action.

Obviously digital culture, web2.0 and social media are not high on Lanier’s list of popular ideas. The hive mind lacks intelligence and the collaboration is all about remixing bits of information without producing anything new. Individuals produce – the hive iterates.

But this is where he loses me. Critiquing the masses for not being innovative or exiting smacks of arrogance – they (the mob) just dont get the sophistication of what the web could be? Sure, we (the mob) are controlled by our iPhones and Twitter. Our communications are not totally free – but when were they ever free? Was there ever a period where the mass was more exciting than it is now? The mass collaboration of Wikipedia may not be producing new knowledge but encyclopedists never did. They are however providing information more efficiently than ever before.

Critiquing bloggers for not being memorable writers is equally unfair as 99% of all writers either never got published or are now out of our memories. Critiquing twitterers for not being deep is also to forget that 99% of all human communication is shallow and pointless (Hello, how are you? nice weather we’re having). The point is to establish relationships (real or imagined) and occasionally pass information of importance.

Sure we are not gadgets and I totally agree with the dangers of the lock-in and the fact that people not networks are the most important – but simply because we are controlled by our infrastructure (as was the medieval scribe) does not mean that we are pawns of our infrastructure.

We are not gadgets – but we may be too fond of them… but thats a different problem.

Read the book its an important addition to our understanding of how technology forms us. Read The Independent & New York Times review of Lanier’s You are not a Gadget

Why call him god?

Reminded today of Epicurus – in particular the “Epicurean paradox” which attempts to deal with why there is evil in the world when there is such a thing as an omnipotent god:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

Tis the season to re-read the classics.

Moral Courage & censorship

Its easy to lose your faith in institutions and so its nice to read that Cambridge University refused to censor a masters thesis. This is my favorite part of the letter (via BoingBoing):

Second, you seem to think that we might censor a student’s thesis, which is lawful and already in the public domain, simply because a powerful interest finds it inconvenient. This shows a deep misconception of what universities are and how we work. Cambridge is the University of Erasmus, of Newton, and of Darwin; censoring writings that offend the powerful is offensive to our deepest values. Thus even though the decision to put the thesis online was Omar’s, we have no choice but to back him. That would hold even if we did not agree with the material! Accordingly I have authorised the thesis to be issued as a Computer Laboratory Technical Report. This will make it easier for people to find and to cite, and will ensure that its presence on our web site is permanent….

Read more about the whole back story A Merry Christmas to all Bankers and the full Letter to bankers (PDF)

Nice to see an act of moral courage coming from the university. I know that they are supposed to be like this but its nice to see that they sometimes act this way too.

Information overload

It seems that ever since we began with computers the term information overload has been with us.

However the concept is not new. In The Chronicle Review Ann Blair writes in the article Information Overload, Then and Now

Early negative responses include Ecclesiastes 12:12 (“Of making books there is no end,” probably from the fourth or third century BC) and Seneca’s “distringit librorum multitudo” (“the abundance of books is distraction,” first century AD). But we also find enthusiasm for accumulation—of papyri at the Library of Alexandria (founded in the early third century BC) or of the 20,000 “facts” that Pliny the Elder accumulated in Historia naturalis (completed in AD 77). Though we no longer care especially about ancient precedent, we hear the same doom and praise today.

In addition to this in 1755 Denis Diderot wrote in Encyclopédie

As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes.

The issue gets more problematic by the fact that our computing powers have been increasing over the past decades. This increase in computing power tends to cloud the problem of information overload by alleviating the problem but it does nothing to resolve the fundamental problem.

Where plagiarism comes from

The idea of property is a social construct and it varies both in places and in history. But is there a point where property is a given? In an interesting study at Yale Kristina Olson and Alex Shaw have been studying at what age children recognise that plagiarism is wrong?

By contrast, three- to four-year-olds did not rate characters who copied as any less likeable or any more bad than characters who came up with their own ideas. In a control condition, children of this age gave negative ratings to characters who stole physical property, thus showing that the the null result for stealing ideas wasn’t because the children didn’t understand the rating scale or weren’t paying attention.

Obviously it is important to try to understand where their values come from. But this is an interesting starting point in the discussion. Read more Olson, K., and Shaw, A. (2010). ‘No fair, copycat!’: what children’s response to plagiarism tells us about their understanding of ideas. Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2010.00993.x

Hitchens vs Blair

In the debate on the resolution whether “religion is a force for good in the world” (part of the Aurea Foundation’s ongoing Munk Debates initiative) Christopher Hitchens (con) debates former UK premier Tony Blair (pro) on the resolution.

Its all on YoutTube

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8.

Preliminary poll results show Hitchens winner of religion debate with Tony Blair Globe & Mail

XKCD on Creative Commons

As both a fan of Creative Commons and XKCD the combination is almost impossible to resist. Right now XKCD t-shirts “doing science” t-shirts are available at the Creative Commons store. This is from the CC blog:

The icing on the cake is the most recent addition to our CC Store: this super-cool science-themed CC shirt, for which the world-famous XKCD was gracious enough to let us re-use a variation on a classic cartoon. Many of you may already read and enjoy the delightful webcomic of “romance, sarcasm, math, and language” which is under a CC BY-NC license. Now you can show your love for Creative Commons and science at the same time by buying one of these t-shirts, available for $20 over at the CC store.

Huge thanks to XKCD for being such a wonderful and creative member of the CC community, and for freely sharing that creativity with the world.

Science@creativecommons by Creative Commons / CC BY

An apology to ebooks

So I eventually succumbed. My joy of tech over won my aversion to the e-book reader and I bought a Kindle. The years fighting it and making better and better arguments for not needing or wanting one suddenly slip away.

And I apologize. I still love and define myself large parts of myself by my physical library but I have become a follower. Instead of constantly needing to carry books inside my heavy laptop bag I have this little device. I can choose from a great library of works and I can read them in a dark corner in a crowded bus.

On the differences between the Kindle and the iPad the Kindle wins because it lacks features. This is counter intuitive and most probably will not last but it should be the Kindles strongest selling argument. Another e-book sceptic Hiltzik writes in the LA Times :

The Kindle, by contrast, has been optimized as a reading device. The letters seem to sit on top of its matte black-and-white E Ink display, reducing eyestrain, their outlines razor-sharp. One good thing about the Kindle is it’s distraction-free — there is a Web browser, but luckily it’s almost useless. The iPad invites you to set aside your reading to play, Web surf, check e-mail, futz around in a million digital ways; the Kindle is solely for reading.

Once again I can see that the traditional bookstore (which I love) has lost relevance to my lifestyle. My reading habits are also changing in relation to what I read, how I read and when I read.

So even though I love a good book – actually holding the physical copy will be a special event. I eventually got rid of my cd collection… how long will my library last?