Is Spock a Professor of ethics at Oxford?

Podcasts are the best thing since sliced bread. So why is it that so few actually know what they are or how to use them? Strange. Or is it just difficult to break ingrained behavior? But this is not about trying to persuade those who don’t get it but I just want to push the amazing series of podcast being sent now on the BBC Arts & Ideas show.

With a focus on the theme of Change the show presents lectures and a following q&a session from people like Landscape architect Charles Jencks, Neuro-scientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (listening to her now), Psychotherapist Susie Orbach & Economist Aditya Chakrabortty.

All these were great but the lecture that really blew me away was by Professor Julian Savulescu who spoke about the duty of change and the case for human enhancement and genetic selection. What I liked was the way in which he, like some philosophers seem to do, took a logical thinking to its consequences. Most of the time we find it difficult to accept a logical chain of thought. Well ok, I do… I get to the beginning where I can lay out the foundations. A is true, B is true… (and so on) but when drawing out the consequences I often shy away from the obvious as I am steered by an irrational emotion. What a philosopher can do is to dare to think the unthinkable.

With his bold logic, I suspect that Julian Savulescu may actually be Spock.

 

 

What is good design for you?

In praise of analogue technologies

All of us are immersed in technologies but when we speak of technology we inevitably jump to the digital varieties. This is unsurprising as these are the new, new things of the day. It’s also unsurprising as we have been taught to be enthralled by shiny technology due to the ways in which Apple has designed and marketed their products.

In addition to this my own views of design and desire is warped by my workplace and research interests. This results in the creating of the idea that design must, almost exclusively, deal with digital technology.

But there is something very limiting in this worldview and I would like to get a better perception of the design of everyday things. One way to go is to read the design books – and I can highly recommend this approach – why not read, for example, Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things.

But I want to go another way and explore design through the things that surround us. We are in a period of design fetishism where good must be expensive and then gets priced that way. So price is involved but I would like to go beyond the dominance of price in looking for, and at, design.

So what I would like is to collect examples of good design with a motivation as to why it is good design. I am not looking for consensus but for stories. So to kick it off I would like to give some examples of good analogue design.

The Barcelona chair – this is a visual object that changes the room in which it is set. It pleases me to sit in it even if other chairs would do the job equally well. It’s affect on me is entwined with my ideas of the chair as well as the object itself.

Good kitchen knives. The balance of a “real” kitchen knife is extremely tactile. It fits and becomes an extension of the hand that uses it. Equally a bad knife makes cooking a chore.

The Merkur razor. At some point I got tired of being owned by Gillette and bought a real old razor with real old razor blades. It’s heavy and does not fit in the hand like the kitchen knife but because of its weight and the risk of cuts turns a boring everyday task into a meditative act. Sure, I may bleed a bit more but the morning ritual is totally different today.

So please let me know, what are your examples of good design?

From Words to Wordfeud: notes on a lecture

There is a strange idea that we are living in the information age and that this age is something bright, shiny and new. Now I don’t mean that we are not in the information age but my concern is the idea that information is something new and exciting.

When talking economics it may be true that we have been in the information age since the 1960s or 70s but this is not what people seem to mean when they use the term as an everyday concept.

“The idea is linked to the concept of a digital age or digital revolution, and carries the ramifications of a shift from traditional industry that the industrial revolution brought through industrialization, to an economy based on the manipulation of information, i.e., an information society.” Wikipedia

We have always been immersed in information. Information about which mushrooms are edible can be life or death knowledge but for most of us today its just trivia. However, we do not raise ourselves by trivializing their vital knowledge.

The lecture opened with a discussion of language and writing. Despite our interest and focus on writing it is relevant to remember that writing is “only” 6000 years old (Wikipedia). Which means we spent 190 000 years without writing. This means that we have evolved in speechless and oral environments. On that topic, check out the Gutenberg Parenthesis lecture by Thomas Pettitt where he explains:

… the way in which he uses the term the Gutenberg Parenthesis: the idea that oral culture was in a way interrupted by Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and the roughly 500 years of print dominance; a dominance now being challenged in many ways by digital culture and the orality it embraces.

And in the same way as we have, through evolution, an interest in finding energy rich foods (high fat, high sugar) we have evolved to view stored information as scarce, important and valuable. Therefore, on an evolutionary scale, things like the Gutenberg press, telegraphs, telephones, fax machines, computers and the Internet are all recent history.

Therefore recent changes like the book and the Internet are still impacting the ways in which we act and react socially. Technology is both an agent and effect of change.

This was followed by an introduction to social media and a discussion to why it is seen as social. The argument here is that we now have an infrastructure to allow us to enact basic communication rights established 300 years ago. With the platforms available to us theoretical rights become inevitable practice. The technology is also challenging many of our legal, ethical, social, economic, political (etc) norms.

One aspect of social media is pretty obvious: Now that we have an endless supply of valuable and important information – we mainly focus on trivial stuff. Facts are a given. The comparison I make is that since we have evolved in information scarce environments we seem to be instinctively drawn to energy rich information. Entertainment and trivia is the fatty and sugary, calorie rich, version of information – the question is what do we do when we are moving towards information obesity?

I offered an example from my schooldays where the focus was on fact knowing. Questions like what is the capital of Burkina Faso (which when I went to school was called Upper Volta)? But is this useful knowledge when everyone has access to the source of information? Schools have been successful since they offered the promise of jobs once the students were done. Now the jobs are not guaranteed anymore and we have come to realize that the factory vision of schools were probably never successful.

On this theme I highly recommend the brilliant (and funny) Ted Talk by Ken Robinson called Do schools kill creativity?

He argues that we have no idea about what the future will bring and yet we are attempting to educate children to meet that future. One thing we should take home is that creating specialists is less than useful when we have no idea if that specialty is useful in the future. Another argument for the so-called “useless” humanities!

I closed with four problems. (1) are we all stupid? Actually this should be that we are unaware of what is happening around us and this is happening to our detriment. Problem (2): we don’t know what we don’t know. This is important because earlier we may have relied on teachers and librarians to tell us what we should know. But this is not going to happen with the gatekeepers online as they have no interest in social enlightenment. Problem (3): There is a difference between who I want to be and who I am… Since online gatekeepers are interested in keeping us happy through personalization they will feed us with what we want (information obesity) rather than with what we may need. Problem (4): the gatekeepers are aware of this! Their advantage lies in our ignorance and/or interest in their abilities. There have always been gatekeepers but we usually knew their motives (good or evil)

An important role for educators is to enlighten us of the gatekeeper’s desires and motives of gatekeepers. I ended up with a depressing note: You don’t have to be unconscious to be without consciousness.

Technology Specs and Techno Emotion

Is there anything more boring than reading instructions or manuals? Ok there is some sado-maschocistic enjoyment in the frustration when attempting to decipher the badly translated or incomplete. What is interesting is the huge leap between the dry explanatory text to the emotional response when we use a piece of well designed technology.

Came across an interesting quote on the nature of man from Buckminster Fuller (apparently from chapter, The Phantom Captain, Nine Chains to the Moon):

Man? Man is a self-balancing, 28-jointed adapter-base biped, and electro-chemical reduction plant, integral with the segregated stowages of special energy extracts in storage batteries, for subsequent activation of thousands of hydraulic and pneumatic pumps, with motors attached; 62,000 miles of capillaries, millions of warning signal, railroad and conveyor systems, crushers and cranes, and a universally distributed telephone system needing no service for seventy years if well managed, the whole extraordinary complex mechanism guided with exquisite precision from a turret in which are located telescopic and microscopic self-registering and recording range-finders, a spectroscope, etc.

Wonderful and precise but lacking something essential to explain the way in which we behave when we are in love. I don’t lack some reference to a soul or a deity but there is something difficult, if not impossible to reduce people to the sum and function of their parts.

These vague thoughts can also be applied to technological systems. On paper they show their intent and purpose but once implemented into a social context they may warp and change into something that was not intended.

Because we can: comments from a lecture

The weekend and FSCONS is now over. This year my presentation was the last talk of the final session. It’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it?

My presentation was on the topic of privacy and raised the question of whether it is possible to maintain ones privacy in the world of extreme technology dependencies and broad social technology adoption. The answer is, dependably & depressingly, negative.

The talk was entitled Off the Grid: is anonymity possible? And focused on different forms of surveillance that are in the hands of uncommon players today. This is not big brother society, this is not little brother society. What we have is a society were privacy is lost because our contacts inform their contacts of interesting details from our lives. These details are able to be spread further by my contacts contacts. Potentially reaching the ends of the Internet. Whether or not this happens does not depend on anything I control but the interestingness of the information.

To illustrate this I displayed this tweet:

Translation: Thing that can happen at #fscons: @Klang67 proclaims himself queen. A bit unclear over what.

This is a form of surveillance through acquaintances and therefore I have chosen to follow the French wording (surveillance is French for viewing from above) and called this connaivellance for the fascinating word connaissance or acquaintance. I find the French word more interesting than the English as its root connai is the word for knowledge. Therefore, the French connaissance (acquaintance) is someone who has knowledge of you. How very apt.

The next form of surveillance is the self-surveillance of the social media age where we tell the world of ourselves. Or as a professor I met earlier in the week protested, with absolute conviction: “Twitter? That’s only people telling each other what they had for breakfast!”

Another thing I find fascinating with social media is the way it shapes our communication. One part of this is the way in we move towards the extremes. Few people online drink coffee, read books, or listen to lectures… We all seem to read fantastic/terrible books, drink great or awful coffee and lectures are either inspiring or snooze fests. All this with a shower of smileys too.

Both this autoveillance (which I have written more about here) and this connaivellance filled much of my lecture. As the law fails to protect, and our acquaintances and ourselves enthusiastically push information the last lines of defense must be the attitudes and interests of the social media creators. What my lecture showed was that protecting us is not in their interest. Therefore we stand unprotected. The slides from my presentation:

This morning I came across a further example of surveillance which needs to be added to the list. The story comes from a Forbes article by Dave Pell, entitled Privacy Ends at Burger King. The short version of the story is that a man who heard a married couple argue at Burger King began live tweeting the event and added pictures and even video clips. He began his broadcasting with the tweet “I am listening to a marriage disintegrate at a table next to me in this restaurant. Aaron Sorkin couldn’t write this any better.”

Pell’s analysis:

In that Burger King, Andy Boyle thought he was listening to the disintegration of a couple’s marriage. He was really hearing the crumbling of his own ethics and self-restraint. We can’t stand by and let an alliance between technology and poor judgement disintegrate all decency, and turn every human exchange into another tawdry and destructive episode on a never-ending social media highlight reel.

This example provided an interesting additional example to my discussion on surveillance. For me, this example shows an additional reason why any attempts to control social media (legally, socially or technically) will fail. The desire of people to communicate the interestingness in their (and others) lives makes control a difficult affair.

FSCONS continued late into the night.

Why I love #fscons

For an academic, conferences are a way of life. At their best they are crossroads and meeting places between academics working either on the same topic or with the same method or theory. In the worst case they are an event where you meet the same people, talk about the same things and re-draw familiar battle lines. Don’t get me wrong even these “worst case” scenarios conferences are still valuable as they are all about meeting people.

But then there is FSCONS.

Once a year for five years my own workplace is transformed into the conference for free software and free culture. The participants are not their because they have papers to present but because they have ideas they want to spread. The audience are not there because they are working on developing their position in an academic hierarchy, but because they believe in the importance of the fundamental premise of the conference.

This is not to say that this is all about preaching to the converted. The audience is very dedicated, and knowledgeable about their topics. Take for example the first talks in the first session:
Karsten Gerloff “The Water in Which We Swim: Policy issues around Free Software”
Jeremiah Foster “Embedded Free Software/Open Source in your car”
Fredrik Gladhorn “Accessibility for Qt and KDE”
Daniel Berntsson “Bitcoin: Decentralised Currency”

And the whole conference continues in this way. The hard hackers meet and mingle with the digital rights activists.

In addition to this it’s all about the people. The relaxed social event to this evening was filled with a breadth of discussions. We had comparisons between 1984 & Brave New World, the cult of leadership & superstar CEOs, penicillin and yoghurt, hardware hacking & aduino, the role of royalty in free culture NCOs… Everywhere you turn their is a passionate group arguing intently on everything from the gender of Jabba the Hut & Admiral Akbar to the purpose, meaning and ability of democracy.

In a moment of strangeness a discussion turned to walls: their meaning, construction, definition and more importantly how to differentiate between walls and wall-like structures. Everyone had opinions and the light-hearted discussion continued for longer than such a question normally would or could last.

When I next checked on twitter I had been challenged to hold a lightening talk entitled: What is a wall?

How could anyone not love FSCONS?

Demonstrations without video are pointless

Fascinating quote from the research of Tina Askanius (recommend that you check out her publications):

You cant have a demonstration without filming it. that makes it pointless… there are riots in Copenhagen, they’ll only go global if there’s video footage. Otherwise its pointless; and you may as well not bother.

I find it interesting that we move from “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (Gil Scott-Heron) to “the revolution will be televised” (does this even have a source?) to the stage where it would be pointless to have a revolution if it isn’t televised.

If a revolution occurs (in the woods) and nobody sees it – does it bring about social change?