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Category Archives: Technology

Those Who Can

After twenty-seven years working in a corporate environment in the U.S., a colleague has taken a job teaching in a different country. He has left his own country, his own language, to travel 8000 miles away.

I am intimidated at the prospect of teaching kids who have grown up in a different culture with a different language. But they want someone to teach them English and other skills necessary to compete in the global economy. My friends here are supportive. But I am a guest. I have spent months (and a chunk of change) getting a visa, having my CV translated, becoming familiar with the customs, and gaining a basic knowledge of the language.

In the West we seem increasingly preoccupied over the complications and dangers of living in the civilization we have created over the last 2000 years. A lot of ex-pat sites on the web extol the virtues of living in a supposedly simpler third- (or second-) world country.

For all the benefits — and there are benefits, not the least of which is the weather here — the society around me has absorbed some of the worst lessons from the West. These include toxic consumerism, idolatrous worship of technology oblivious to its dysfunctional effects, and a view of urban development that still equates progress with larger cities, more cars and more buildings.

More Buildings

Competing for the Ugliest Building in the World


So why did he leave?

I spent years doing office work related to IT trying to convince myself (and allowing myself to be convinced) that it was meaningful labor. It’s increasingly evident it was a vain pursuit for a paycheck to support someone else’s bottom line. This was achieved by treating employees and customers as commodities. My ideas, goodwill and efforts were ultimately wasted to perpetuate the vast shell game of corporate capitalism.

What about volunteering? Or joining a commune, if he is against capitalism?

I’m not against capitalism practiced on a human scale. And I’m not a fan of communism, which historically has led to its own depredations. The fact  is in the West we recognize the value of work by paying for it. I and those close to me have volunteered in the past, teaching literacy, working with the homeless, and assisting with various causes. In some cases these efforts have enabled the very dysfunction they seek to ameliorate. I’ve paid my dues. At this point I want to be compensated for my time, talent, effort and experience. I want to enjoy what I do and feel rewarded. Plus, I can use the money. (The cost of living here is more modest, but not nonexistent.)

And will teaching accomplish that? Colleges and universities are tied up in knots nowadays over political correctness and questions about their relevance. Public schools are threatened as safe havens for children to learn and be nurtured. Society seems to celebrate being unenlightened and anti-intellectual. The public itself are increasingly treated merely as marks to be exploited by rampant consumerism and venal politicians.

I’ve passed my sixth decade and my life is still a work in progress. I look at this as an experiment. I’ve committed to the coming year. I’d be an idiot if I didn’t admit to being intimidated. The kids I’m teaching range from 11 – 14. The subjects covered in school range from English and history to humanities and science. As adults these kids will make decisions that will affect not only their own lives, but the direction their society (and maybe the world) takes. My desire is to instill some knowledge and perspective that will help them live their lives with a sense of agency. Why not try?

— DA

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A Wild Demise

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been …

— John Keats

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818

 

Thanks to Facebook Business for reminding us, no matter what (fire, flood, earthquake, chemotherapy, ecstasies, epiphanies, personal crises, or a bad day), we must produce fresh content for their – I mean our — ‘customers’:

Hi Valued Advertiser,

People visiting Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies haven’t heard from you in a while. Write a post or share a photo or video to keep people engaged.
Thanks,

The Facebook Ads Team

We unsubscribed from FB’s services a year ago. In any event I am happy to say my imminent demise has been exaggerated, so that I can share this blast from the past. Ladies & gentlemen (and everyone in between), please see a link to the Connections series from the 70s created and hosted by James Burke, and available on the Internet Archive, Enjoy. – DA.

 

We Need Some Human Help

Welcome to the Valentine’s Day installment.

We navigate our days these days watched and prodded by our non-human talismans of technology1. These constant companions prompt us with questions or suggestions under the guise of being interactive. One not-so-subtly pops up on my phone lately, like an annoying partner in an old comedy routine (Didya see, didya see? What? Huh? What? Huh?), with the ironic phrase We need some human help.

Knowing our days are numbered to a suddenly-definable sum (whether the Biblical three-score and ten, shorter or longer) focuses our attention remarkably on what is important and what is not. Having been informed that I am scheduled to leave this earth sooner than I planned, I confess to a certain sensitivity to having my time wasted. In the past year I have confronted what seems more than my share of dysfunctional officials, health insurance that fails to reassure, and medical care that feels anything but caring. I know I’m not the only one facing an individual Gethsemane, but since when has that been a real consolation? I have watched my friends and acquaintances at home and abroad wishing the cup would pass for all of us: the lady whose son was diagnosed with schizophrenia last year, a former colleague staying in a dissatisfying job for the health insurance, men and women seeking love and connection amidst the wasteland and darkling plain of fraught relationships. For some it proves too much to endure. We try to live our lives with a modicum of peace and happiness amidst Dickensian bureaucracy allied with bad technology, dysfunctional workplaces [bullshit jobs, ‘open’ offices], alienated lives and absurd trappings of so-called civilization. Human help indeed.

In your life you will know trouble, Jesus said, a phrase curiously absent from the dogma of positive thinking. Like too much sugar, being optimistically (if not relentlessly) positive can sweeten the appreciation of life or make it almost intolerable. Troubles exist in our lives whether we are rich or poor, privileged or marginalized, mentally-challenged or on the genius scale.

There are plenty of reasons to feel cynical and hopeless amidst the dehumanizing juggernaut of technology and capitalism, including an apparent media obsession with bad news and human failure. But being optimistic does not mean suspending our critical faculties or our humanity. I think it’s about time we fessed up, set aside our fear (or meanness or just plain obliviousness which technology so easily aids and abets2) and did what we can to ameliorate or sympathize with, rather than marginalizing, fellow human beings.

I don’t much care if you text, blog, tweet, e-mail or use a carrier pigeon. Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes writes about the dilemma of globalization and the need for human (and local) connection. Globalization and technology used exclusively in the service of profit threaten to undermine our sense of agency and make individuals feel expendable. If community is to be more than a marketing ploy and love not just a slogan, the primary job each of us in this world of our creation is to take back hope from the ashes and connect to our own hearts and the hearts of others . ### — DA

1See Shoshanna Zuboff’s recent, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

2See emotional deskilling.

L is for —

Leap
Leave
Lose
Legal
Ludicrous

I am waiting to hear whether I can stay. We assembled my documents as best we can according to the latest information (which keeps changing). We woke in the middle of the night to try and make another (fourth? fifth?) appointment at the immigration office using the broken online scheduling system (which keeps breaking). Bureaucracy and crappy technology are a bad combination.

On TV here there are stories of political corruption, financial malfeasance and bus crashes. Despite this, immigrants from another country where things are worse flock across the borders. Since the fall in oil prices, professionals and working-class, immigrants and locals alike struggle to find work. People sell oranges in the streets and juggle at traffic lights.

In keeping with the Halloween spirit in my home country citizens exclaim and pontificate like people trying to dislodge a rabid bat that has flown in their house. The word loser has gotten a lot of attention there in the past few years – occupying the public rhetoric to the point of irony. It’s a sort of joke unless you are on the receiving end – among those who, to paraphrase A Wonderful Life (the title itself a bit of irony) ‘do most of the working and paying and living and dying’ in this world.

BBC/Getty Images


Love
Loyal
Laughter
Lucky

Like other immigrants, I left personal heartache and darkness; my job, my home, my city, my language, my connections – familiar landmarks by which I navigated a former life. I traveled to a different culture. I was fortunate to find new friends, affection, joy and love among intelligent, hard-working people who know how to enjoy life. Many of them have lost as well.

One had her social security savings embezzled at a previous employer. Another lost her husband to someone else. A young man in his late twenties fled from a nearby country and now works for low wages in a local restaurant. A few weeks ago we heard a Vivaldi concert with two of them. The weekend after we ate dinner and drank wine and danced at a friend’s house till three in the morning. People here know how to throw a party. If they are losers, I’m proud to be in their company.

Living in a privileged society does not make you immune from challenges and loss, of course. In the past six months a former colleague back home died in her sleep. She had a voice like angel and was afraid to tell our employer when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Another colleague in his forties who races bicycles had serious surgery last summer. A third in his fifties has a non-fatal form of leukemia and works to retain his benefits. Some self- help advice I’ve read suggests separating yourself from such people and the ‘negative energy’ they carry — a curious inversion of Christian charity.

Even though the rainy season has arrived, the strong sun requires liberal amounts of sun block. We were hoping to visit the surrounding villages and see historic sites. It’s hard to make plans. Leaving the country starts the visa process over, and I might have to pay a fine to return: Do not pass Go; Do not collect $200. Some days I feel like an exile. Contacting our embassy twice by phone and e-mail for an appointment resulted in impersonal replies to check their web site.

Lo siento (I’m Sorry)
Llegar (Arrive)
Levantar (Raise up, Carry)
Libre (Freedom)

We are all going about the business of trying to live as human beings in the face of institutions, bureaucracies and technologies that increasingly confound our notions of being human. Businesses wittingly or unwittingly abuse the talent and motivation of their employees. Countries squander the hope and goodwill of their citizens and immigrants arriving to seek a better life. Who are the losers?

We are programmed to pursue the better, the new and improved, the different. Because nothing is more constant than change, and what we have is never enough. As for me, here I am 2800 miles away from what used to be home. I tell myself in the positive thinking parlance of the day that I am going toward something. – CDL

###

 

‘Smart Machines’ 30 Years Later

‘Dave? Dave? What are you doing?’ (Image courtesy Amazon)

 

Thirty years ago a book appeared that anticipated the automation of nearly every aspect of our lives and the world we live in, including the promise and dilemmas of computers in the workplace, social networking, privacy and the recent debacle with Facebook.

The New York Times called In the Age of the Smart Machine ‘a penetrating study of how automation is affecting the workplace.’ But the implications go much further. The author, Shoshana Zuboff, based the book on her consulting work in the 1980s with business organizations installing personal computers in the 1980s and her Ph.D. research at Harvard. The book’s full title, In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, belied its uniqueness and the breadth and depth of the material covered.

When the first PCs emerged from antediluvian garages and hobbyists’ living rooms1 in the last decades of the 20th Century, early businesses were not quite sure what to do with them. Before the Internet, before email, before Facebook, texts and Twitter, large mainframe computers dominated the marketplace. Apple’s IIc and Macintosh, lurking in the evolutionary underbrush with their revolutionary graphical user interfaces, were the domain mainly of college professors, designers and artists.

Zuboff went into paper mills, insurance companies and other organizations experimenting with the new technology. She investigated how the new technology implemented at the time affected employees’ and managements’ jobs and the ways they interacted. She combined her findings with research on communication theory, cognitive psychology and labor and social history. The result is one part oral history, one part case study and two parts social history accompanied by a plethora of citations.2 Along the way Zuboff coined several terms, including informating and intellective skills. The former she defined as follows:


… [informating] technology is used to reproduce and extend the process of substituting machines for human agency… Devices that automate by translating information into action also register data about those automated activities, thus generating new streams of information. (Smart Machine, page 9)

In comparison to 1970s and 1980s prognosticators of the future such as as Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt3, Zuboff’s writing is even-handed and thoughtful. Her work compares favorably to that of 90s writer Neil Postman.4 Why the book is not more widely known is somewhat of a mystery. Amidst the current hype over virtual reality, artificial intelligence and smart cars, Smart Machine still stands as the sine qua non toward thoughtful discourse on the place of computing technology in the workplace and society against the pessimism of writers such as Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov5 on one hand, and the relentless promotion of technology by business and academia on the other.

Although retired from teaching, Zuboff continues to write on the vicissitudes and dilemmas of computing.6 Nowadays the vagaries of social networking, the abstraction of labor, deskilling, and monopolies of power are becoming abundantly clear. Zuboff shows that the seeds for the unchecked flow, control and consumption of data and digitization of our lives were sown in the factory system of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, including technologies such as the power-loom and Ford’s assembly lines. Contemporary dilemmas around the impact of computers on human agency, alienation and our fraught online interactions have their antecedents in the telegraph and telephone7. The radio and television brought information to the masses. The world wide web expanded the role of technology as a magnifier of thought and ideas8, for good or ill.

Advances in computing power and global networking since have led to 24/7 connectivity through our smartphones and the ubiquitous presence of applications like Facebook. Despite 1980s rhetoric promising a Third Wave of computing and mass empowerment through the free sharing of information, a digital age of Aquarius has not dawned. Unchecked social networking and social media also carry a danger of creating a more tribal, fragmented society9. We are increasingly subject in our daily lives to the Taylorization10 of our work, our thoughts, our bodies and our relationships and disconnection of our human from our virtual selves. We are sold the notion that we conduct our virtual lives through disinterested ‘bots and algorithms designed for smoothly-functioning utilitarian efficiency without messy emotion.11 In reality they reflect the predilections and character of their creators: business executives, programmers, government bureaucrats, and ‘thought leaders’ accountable to no one. Whatever opportunities they presume to offer toward enlightenment and realizing the better angels of our nature, commercial entities like Cambridge Analytics, Facebook, Uber and Google also reflect and feed off the fear, frustration, greed, anger, lust and chaos in our souls.

Zuboff is an insightful guide to the mundus novus of computing in the last century and a superb writer. She asks good questions of herself and her subjects, questions we should be asking still.

  • Is computing technology transformative, or just an extension of the automation of our lives and work that has occurred over the past 200 years?
  • What are executives’ and managers’ obligations toward workers and consumers in applying the new technology? Is it to to improve their productivity and happiness, liberating them for more creative ‘intellective’ tasks – or solely to achieve the lowest common denominator of efficiency?
  • Is technology ever merely neutral?
  • Are workers and consumers obligated to embrace possibilities of technology? Or do they have rights to obstruct and even undermine changes that may not be in their best interests?

Smart Machine offers a prescient guide toward developing a mindful, humane and sane approach to technology. However, it’s unclear who is interested in employing it thus. Corporations are driven by the same bottom line of optimizing profit that they have been since the 19th Century. Universities have become extensions of the corporate state and mere pipelines to employment. Government extols innovation for its own sake and as a spurious source of profit without regard for ethics or the public good12. The result (at least as far as computers and the web) is the expenditure of untold amounts of talent and money to develop trivial applications (think clickbait) which at best distract us from important matters and at worst separate us from our money, personal data and identity. Despite the cautionary mythology presented in films such as the Matrix, there is little relief today from an advancing tide of futurism, reductionist scientific thinking and technological determinism that sees all aspects of our existence as a nail for the same digital hammer.

The EU attempts to protect members’ privacy with it’s own bureaucracy. Writers such as Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov are shrill counterpoints to unmitigated boosterism. Small groups such as the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, attempt a mindful approach through The New Atlantis to ensure the appropriate use of technology, ethics, and involvement of an informed citizenry in decision-making.

Technology is more than a device or solution. It it is a way of thinking which offers benefits and limitations in navigating this world of our creation. Far from simply being a benign extension of ourselves, the tools have the power to change the nature of the user and the manner in which we live.  -CDL

1Such as the Tandy TRS-80, which could be purchased as a kit (?) through Radio Shack.
2Including semiotics, problem-solving, the abstraction of work and media studies addressed in writing by Karl Polanyi, Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman
3Authors, respectively, of the Future Shock (1970) and Megatrends (1982)
4Author of books including Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Technopoly (1992), Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future (1995)
5Authors, respectively, of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and To Save Everything Click Here.
6No escape from the Panopticon, ScienceNode, October 14th 2017
7See Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet.
8A machine is a magnifier of labor
9In Ill Fares the Land the late Tony Judt describes the ‘connected isolation’ that results.
10Named for Frederick Winslow Taylor, Henry Ford’s manager and promoter of ‘one best way’ for completing tasks.
11 Facilitating superficial, zipless interactions without emotional investment or accountability, to borrow a term from 1970s writer Erica Jong,
12The late Neil Postman, in Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, proposed we ask of technology, What problem does it solve; what problem(s) does it create? Who benefits? Who pays?

 

But Let’s Not

(Facebook Deletion Notice)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, what the hell —

An Apology for the Internet from the People Who Built It (Noah Kulwin, New York Magazine)

Shoshana Zuboff: No Escape from the Panopticon (Lance Farrell, Sciencenode)

–CDL

Speaking of Facebook…

Three recent articles on technology. One takes a ‘Don’t worry, trust us’ approach. The other two  are more critical:

Victor Frankenstein Is the Real Monster (Ronald Bailey, Reason)

Uber’s Fatal Crash Raises Big Questions About Self-Driving Cars (Video, Wired)

Does My Algorithm Have a Mental-Health Problem? (Thomas T Tills , Aeon)

And should I be worried about the elevator that keeps closing on me? — CDL

Detaching

— From a variety of things. Including soon, perhaps, Facebook. Bye fly, FB!

Found in Translation

Riqui’s en Quito

I’m in touch with new friends in Ecuador through an application on my phone called WhatsApp. Their English is often far better than my Spanish. I’ve been using Google Translate to help me correspond. When I arrived in Ecuador for the first time in December last year, I knew barely a lick of the lingua franca. My mental phrase book was limited to Hola, Como esta? and Como se llama? I’ve learned a few more words and phrases since then, including some curse words and slang for communicating inspiration, frustration and desire.1

Technologies exist now that purport to remove the necessity for our ever having to learn a new language. A person from a local university showed me an app on her phone that allows her to hold it up to a person in a foreign country, ask them to speak into it, and receive an approximation of the corresponding phrases in her own idiom. While this eliminates the effort (and the fun) of learning a language, I’m not sure shoving your phone in someone’s face to hold a conversation will endear yourself to local residents.2

Douglas Hofstadter rips Google Translate a new one in the Atlantic. Hofstadter’s beef is that GT’s algorithms don’t understand the meaning behind what you are trying to say. Therefore, it can’t really replace a real human translator (and take his job). I find Google Translate useful. Of course GT doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what you are trying to say. I’m guessing it correlates words and phrases based on proximity and context against a history of similar words and phrases in a different language stored in it’s vast Google-ian deep-thought-like3 repository. The actual translation is likely based on probability and pattern recognition. That’s a guess. Anyone with more knowledge in this field feel free to correct me.

Artificial intelligence, natural language processing and machine learning have been around as concepts in business, academia, science fiction and prognostications of the future for years.4 The technology has gone from theory to practice and is finding its way into call centers, banking, medical transcription, and most usefully, assistive devices for the vision- and hearing-impaired and cognitively and physically disabled. It now allows us to look up phrases and get almost instantaneous pretty good okay-ish translations on the web that that give the gist and allows us to understand and be understood.

As Hofstadter points out, speaking and writing across cultures contains idiosyncratic and unique phrases and meaning.5 Even human translators find balancing nuances of meaning against accuracy and clarity challenging. Grammar checkers and thesauri included in word processing software reject work by writers such as Hemingway and (especially) James Joyce as ungrammatical and wrong. Machine-only translation often produces borderline gibberish.6

As a bit of assistive technology, GT has its place for helping those who sometimes want a quick and dirty7 way to communicate in a different language. Replacing real translation with this sort of tool makes us complacent and robs us of the worthwhile work and pleasure of finding and appreciating the beauties and subtleties of another language.

In the utilitarian bottom-line world we live in, too often we believe we have no other choice. The scary thing is when people start taking these pieces of technology as gospel and assuming they are the only game in town. – CDL

1 Which is one of the the main purposes language serves.

2Como dice ‘Vete a la mierda?’ This might kill the mood in more intimate circumstances, but who knows? People can get used to a lot.

3See Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy (the original radio play, not the lame film).

4See Alan Turing (The Imitation Game) Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, and work at universities in Pittsburgh in the 1980s.

5Which lend themselves to delightful wordplay.

6Mi amiga especial, who originally recommended Google Translate, told me over WhatApp, ‘It sounds like a robot’. She resorts to texting ‘GT, phone home.’ whenever the app fails her. Muy adorable.

7Sometimes literally. GT is very accommodating. If you put in the filthiest phrases you can think of, it’s a lot of fun. Try it with a friend.

Urban Expeditions

Hola Snake

Hola, Gringo. You look tired

I shopped for clothes in Quito. It exhausted me worse than my jungle trip.

An urban expedition can be dangerous. Did you see any wild animals?

Taxis and cars that don’t stop and herds of shoppers stampeding for sales.

There are benefits to living in your own skin. If I get tired of a style, I shed it and grow another.

Like some people shed their personalities.

Humans are a remarkably transitory species.

Like the weather is Quito.

Whether or not I shed my skin, a snake is a snake. It is my nature.

Like some people.

You insult me. I have a friend in Quito. A lounge lizard.

I danced salsa at a club the other night. Sixty dollars for one mojito each for me and the lady I was with. But she was muy bonita, and there was live music and the salsa muy caliente. Maybe he was there.

He sings numbers like Snakey Breaky Heart, Don’t Come Slithering Around My Door and Reptile Love, among others.

Muy picante. Totally worth it.

Humans have strange habits. I’ve heard of this Tinder. Why would you want to set yourselves on fire before mating?

It’s an expression.

Si. I forgot Humans are hot blooded. Like your chica dancing queen?

She is a beautiful middle-aged lady – the energizer bunny of salsa.

Horizontal or vertical?

A gentleman does not tell.

But you are a gringo, not a gentleman.

I am trying to set a good example.

Better than trying to set someone on fire to show them you care.

Human love can be an incendiary.

So roast a marshmallow or an agouti. All that drama.

Si. Like an Ecuadorian telenovela: all those tears and mascara running. It makes the women look like lemurs.

And the men with heaving nostrils. Snakes are much more sensible.

Well, you are cold blooded.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have feelings. We’re just more straightforward when we entwine.

If you don’t mind my saying, you are sentimental for a reptile.

Mama Anaconda asked about you. She would like to wrap her coils around you.

Everybody needs a hug.

What a way to go.

I think Mama Anaconda needs to find someone her own species.

I will give her your suggestion.

Maybe she can try Tinder. I can help her write her profile: ‘Mujer serpiente seeks gentleman snake in the grass. Bring a fire extinguisher.’ – CDL

 

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