Postnormal skills, ghosting, fashion, the dark side, and more
Thoughtful Net #45. Interesting links from the past month.
It has been exactly one month since I sent the last edition. I wish I could say I’ve been busy with amazing experiences that kept me away from the keyboard, but to be honest I’ve no excuse except procrastination and a little demotivation; the unwanted general election, and the terrorist attacks in London, left me feeling a little blue.
Still, I don’t stay gloomy for long. By nature I’m protopian; I believe that things are better today than they were yesterday, even if only a little bit. A slow upward trend can still have up and down variation.
Entirely unrelated to what I’ve just been talking about, let’s start this edition with a quote, from Alan Moore:
I believe that our world is gloriously haunted with meaning; that it’s we ourselves that are doing the haunting; and that we should be doing more of it, or doing it more strenuously.
I am dropping skills like coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, and complex problem solving. Because d’uh. Also missing are givens like virtual collaboration, new literacy, and participatory engagement. Again, these are today’s skills, since 2005 at least, or have the uncharming characteristic of being so commonplace that everyone thinks they know what they mean, even if they don’t.
And Now, a Brief Definition of the Web. Dieter Bahn attempts to pin down what makes the web, the web. It’s surprisingly difficult, and equally surprisingly simple. Very useful to have this to refer to as technology splinters in unexpected directions.
When people talk about the “open web,” agnosticism to the client is really at the heart of it. A page or app may be free (as in beer) and linkable, but if it only works on specifically proscribed platforms (iOS, Android, Facebook, Chrome), it’s not really open.
A transcript of Josh Clark’s talk, Design In The Era Of The Algorithm, on ‘the next mobile’, and principles for designers on working with machine learning. Aimed at digital designers, but understandable by, and interesting to, everybody.
Technical advance inflates expectations faster than it can fulfill them. As both designers and users, we see the glimmer of possibility, but we stagger to find success. For makers, it takes time, patience, and willingness to experiment in order to find the right mix of technology — and the right context for it.
The Secret Online World of British Teens: How Streaks, Deep Likes and Ghosting Define Young Lives. Chris Stokel-Walker interviews a handful of teens about their social media use. As always, they’re much more aware and savvy than people often give them credit for.
While olds (👴🏽) like me might use Twitter to broadcast their thoughts, teenagers are cannier; they parley rather than proselytise, stringing conversations together in public and chatting constantly in private.
Why Is Google Digitising the World’s Fashion Archives? Vikram Alexei Kansara interviews Google’s Kate Lauterbach on ‘We Wear Culture’, a project to digitise the history of fashion. Not just a puff-piece, interestingly critical in the right places.
We call them trends. But what are they really? Why does that keep coming back? And what if you saw that and could map that onto political events or certain geographical locations. What if you could understand: Why do ripped jeans keep coming back? Is there a trigger? Is there something wider?
The Rise of the QR Code and How It Has Forever Changed China’s Social Habits. Stephen Chen on how the humble QR has contributed to some £4.37 trillion of mobile payments in China last year, and its adoption into day-to-day life.
The younger generation in China will grow up in a world full of two-dimensional barcodes. They may develop a new understanding of money. Maybe, in their eyes, money [will be seen as] not just a means to purchase commodities and services, but also socialise.
No, Google’s Not a Bird: Bringing the Internet to Rural India. Ellen Barry tells the story of a man evangelising the internet in rural India, where mobile networks have arrived before a single landline. NB: Contains some behaviour that will be shocking to many.
At some point, Mr. Neti discovered that he had become skeptical of nearly everything he had been taught. “I tried to find out if the gods created the earth,” he said. “I found out it was not true. But still I cannot answer the question of who created the earth. But I believe Google contains the answer.”
The Dark Side
In Eliminating the Human, musician David Byrne theorises that technology aimed at connecting us online has the (perhaps) unintended side effect of making us less social in real life. It’s not a new theory, and I don’t entirely agree with it, but it’s a well argued piece.
I see a pattern emerging in the innovative technology that has gotten the most attention, gets the bucks and often, no surprise, ends up getting developed and implemented. What much of this technology seems to have in common is that it removes the need to deal with humans directly.
Rise of the Machines: Who is the ‘Internet of Things’ Good For? Adam Greenfield argues that the main beneficiaries of the IoT and smart cities are the companies who get the data about our lives and habits. I don’t think he’s wrong, but no alternatives are presented other than ‘don’t use them’, which I think is unfair on people who get genuine utility in return.
The internet of things isn’t a single technology. About all that connects the various devices, services, vendors and efforts involved is the end goal they serve: capturing data that can then be used to measure and control the world around us. Whenever a project has such imperial designs on our everyday lives, it is vital that we ask just what ideas underpin it and whose interests it serves.
In What is Artificial Intelligence? Mike Loukides and Ben Lorica have written the best non-technical introduction to AI and machine learning I’ve read to date. If you’re at all unsure of what AI is, how it works, and what it can do, this is the article for you. (Free registration required.)
It’s a good bet that in the next decades, some features of AI will be incorporated into every application that we touch and that we won’t be able to do anything without touching an application. Given that our future will inevitably be tied up with AI, it’s imperative that we ask: Where are we now? What is the state of AI? And where are we heading?
Artificial Intelligence Owes You an Explanation. John Frank Weaver on the ‘right to an explanation’ movement, which feels that artificially intelligent algorithms should be transparent to the consumer, especially as they impact on decisions around work, finance, and health.
The right to an explanation [is] a movement to combat the broad move to a “black box society” — a culture that largely accepts we have no way to understand how technology makes many basic decision for us, like when self-driving cars choose particular routes home or autonomous shopping assistants generate your grocery lists.
The Thoughtful Net is an occasional (less than weekly, more than monthly) publication collecting great writing about the internet and technology, culture, information, society, science, and philosophy. If you prefer to receive it in your inbox you can follow this publication or subscribe to the email newsletter.