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Category Archives: Technology

‘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?

 

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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

 

Entertainment for the Journey

I’m preparing for an upcoming trip to Ecuador in December. I tend to overthink, and am learning there are some serious snakes and spiders in the jungle there, including the Fer-de-lance and black widow. But if we can’t entertain ourselves during the journey, never mind others, what’s the point?

Image: Fer-de-lance

Hola, Señor Fer-de-lance! (Courtesy BBC Nature)

 

Interview With an Ecuadoran Snake

Hola, Señor Snake.

Hola, Gringo .

Como estas ?

Muy bien. Y tú ?

Okay. Thanks for asking .

Are you on a holiday. ?

Yes. A friend invited me to accompany her.

Be careful where you step.

Gracias. You are a courteous snake .

De nada . We try to make guests feel welcome in the jungle . Did you get all your vaccines? I could administer any you’re missing with my built-needles.

Thanks. I’m good. Some people are afraid of snakes.

Some people are afraid of their own shadow.

Yes, there seem so many things to be afraid of these days. My friend says she hates snakes.

Strong words. But that’s nothing to me. I just exist here, doing snake-like things.

Do you bite?

Only a little,  if someone steps on my head.

But you are very venomous.

Lo siento. It is my nature. I use my venom to catch and eat small rodents like agouti — preferably accompanied by a glass of Syrah.

Not fava beans and a nice chianti ?

No! What do you think I am? I generally don’t much like people either .

I hope you’ll make an exception for me.

We’ll see.

My friend said some folks here call her a witch .

Then she should be okay. She can cast a spell to keep me away. Is she a good witch or a bad witch?

She says she can be very bad: muy malo.

Make sure she does not cast a spell on you and turn you into an agouti .

Too late. The spell is cast. Here I am thousands of miles away in the jungle bringing medical care to local people. At least it’s for a good cause.

Did your friend bewitch you to lure you into her lair ? Like a spider.

No, I think she likes me. I call her querida bruja* for fun .

She is like a lady witch doctor , perhaps.

Kind of . Though she is a very interesting witch — she leads eco tours and runs a farm.  She goes rafting .

Sounds like she has a real pair of ovaries. Does she intimidate you?

Not too much. And who wants boring?  And If she turned me into an agouti, we couldn’t have interesting conversations.

Yes. Conversation is important.

You have some some serious spiders here by the way, including black widows, tarántulas and very unhygienic spitting spiders. But no. I came because I wanted to.

You are from the States ?

Si. Pennsylvania .

The keystone state . Two main cities: Philadelphia , city of brotherly love , and Pittsburgh , city of three rivers .

You are an educated snake.

Gracias. I have my degree in herpetology.

I know other snakes where I come from, like timber rattlesnakes.  I come across them when I hike.

I know a nice family of timber rattlesnakes el Norte, in the central part of  Pennsylvania. We stay in touch by Facebook and WhatsApp.

Being a snake, you have no opposable thumbs. How do you dial your phone?

Google voice activation works well enough . So when are you leaving Ecuador?

A few weeks.

What a pity . Back to all that cold . Away from your friend .

That’s the way the world works now: everyone is connected but apart.

Yes. Strange. If I may be personal, you seem not always positive.

It’s my nature sometimes. And it’s based on experience.

But you entertain me. Will you visit again?

I’m here to show up and enjoy the journey now.  I’m not thinking about the future . Sure. Maybe.

If you visit again please look me up. I’ll keep the light on for you.

Will you put a mint on my pillow?

No. An agouti .

Gracias .

Just watch where you step and lay your head. You never know what you might encounter in in the jungle. See you later.

Not if I see you first. Ha ha.

Hasta la proxima.

Chao.

# # #

*Dear Witch

Image: Agouti & Syrah Wine

Better Together (Photo credits: Agouti: brian.gratwicke, Syrah: Ricardo Bernardo | ricardobernardo.net)

 

The Human

Facebook, texts and e-mail optional. Actual conversation recommended.

Greeting [Hug, handshake, secret society signal]

Them: Hey [Bro, Buddy, Honey, My Man, Sweetheart, Sweetcheeks, Hot Stuff or actual name if recalled]. How are you?

You: Meh.

Them: So, my [wife, significant other, family, coffee klatch, coven, paramilitary group, Illuminati subcommittee, tribe, friends, colleagues etc.] and I are headed to [the shore, our camp, Chautauqua, music festival, etc.] next week/weekend/August. It’s a pretty low key interesting crowd. Would like like to come along? You’d be welcome.

You: That sounds nice.

Them: It comes out to about $200-$300 a person. Do you mind sleeping on a sofa?’

You: Sure, I can swing that. No problem.

Them: There’s a hammock out back and canoe/kayak rental and cycling nearby. We’ll cook most of our meals. We might go out to eat once or twice.

Me: Sounds nice. I can bring some groceries and a bottle of wine to share. I can help cook and clean up. I would enjoy that.

Them: We may have some plans. You’re welcome to join us for some or just chill on your own. I know it’s been a rough month/year/life/millenium.

You: Sounds like what I need. I may do some writing if I feel like it, and bring my harmonicas.

Them: Um, yeah. That’d be good to do while we’re out. We’re leaving [date]. We’ll carpool split gas/taking our own cars. Coming back [date].

You: Sounds good. I’ve got plenty of vacation time. Plus I need the break. Feel like I’m going to lose it some days. I’ll go ahead and schedule the time.

Them: Great. Give you call to touch base.

You: Thanks. Looking forward to it.

Parting hug, handshake, fist bump, what-have-you.

# # #

 

 

 

Voodoo ToDo

 Our age of social networking compels us to devote time, effort and attention more into promoting what we are doing than doing it. Add to this the sense that what we have done never quite measures up to the accomplishments of others1, never mind our own hopes and dreams. There be dragons, and a recipe for craziness.

My friends and acquaintances and I interact almost entirely via text and email. We seem always distracted and busy with work, undefined obligations and idolatrous demands. Our conversations – such as they are – are reduced to monosyllabic, abstract exchanges like those between dyslexic telegraph operators.2 Notwithstanding the efficiency this mode of communication offers, indulged in exclusively it shortchanges the ephemeral, non-algorithmic serendipitous aspects of fun, humor, intimacy and creativity that make human life worthwhile. What are we selling to each other and ourselves, to choose such a simulacrum3 of living?

Anyone who knows me can hear me quoting Thoreau: ‘We have traded our birthright for a mess of pottage .‘ Or perhaps, Do we run on the railway, or does the railway run on us?

Let me take a step back from this harried, hypnotic, delusional state we allow ourselves to become heir to. I spent the past few months doing fun, creative and worthwhile activities with those same friends and acquaintances. I helped organize and participated in Lawrenceville’s Art All Night event in April, and serve as education lead for a non-profit engineering group conducting a water project in Ecuador. I play harmonica with a local music group. In May I lectured on the depiction of technology in film, literature and popular culture to a science fiction and fantasy group. And I start a local arts residency this week that includes a canoe trip on the Youghiogheny River.

So why do I feel inadequate for (until now) not sharing these activities on a public forum with people who may not care to give a damn? Why do I feel constantly that there is something else I need to do? (Oh, wait. My laundry needs to go in the dryer.).

I’ll admit these activities sometimes offer displacement from the anxious, frustrating, lacking or painful aspects of my life. They tend to cost money, effort and time without any obvious or immediate financial gain. They do not advance what is euphemistically termed my career path, at least at present. They might be regarded merely as Quixotic, fanciful pursuits. Except that they represent a choice to connect to human aspects of myself and others and direct my energy in purposeful ways, if only in fits and starts. To me that beats the hell out of getting a fidget bit. HDT again:  All our inventions are but improved means to unimproved ends.

Just say ‘No’.

I recently had a birthday. I am more aware than ever of the time and energy we devote to vain tasks masquerading as productivity in our lives and work.4 There is dignity and sacredness in chopping wood and carrying water: Trash does not take itself out. Dishes must be washed. Bills must be paid (don’t they?). But when we program ourselves to press a virtual pressbar as the chief end of our humanity, who profits?5

# # #

1 See also FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

2 Note that our texts often leave out names and personal pronouns – just saying. I cannot claim this comparison as original. Read Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet

3 A representation or imitation of a person or thing that becomes accepted as real. (Thanks to artist buddy Chris McGinnis for pointing me to this reference by Jean Baudrillard.)

5For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?, Mark 8:36, KJV

Attachment & Being Human

I’ve seen a lot of advice lately against getting ‘too attached’ — to people, desires, hopes. Is there’s a gauge like a radiation badge to measure how much is enough, or too much? Is our chief end to control our unruly natures and turn our emotions on and off like robots.1)

Emily Dickinson on Hope

Emily Says —

Something bugs me about non-attachment as a blanket answer to all human desire for connection, never mind the notion of karma. These can become unthinking dogma like anything else. The following nails something self-evident, however much we try to deny it, about our desire to connect:

… It is in our biology, in the fabric of us, to connect to other human beings, and anything which tries to insert shame and doubt into that instinct is bound to always twist us… If the thought, “I am happy right now”, can never occur without an accompanying, “And I am just delaying my ultimate fulfillment in being so”, then what, essentially, has life become? I’ve seen it in action – people reaching out for connection, and then pulling back reflexively, forever caught in a life of half-gestures that can’t ever quite settle down to pure contemplation or gain a moment of genuine absolute enjoyment.Dale DeBakcsy, New Humanist

The idea of non-attachment is useful in the right context. But we are human. We do grow attached to kids, loved ones, hopes, pleasures, ideas, beliefs pursuits large and small.2 Also toxic things. There are a lot of mixed messages in the Buddhist, Christian and New Age traditions. Maybe our goal should be to be more choosy about holding on and letting go and how. And savoring and enjoying worthwhile attachments while we’re here. And not putting so much energy and effort into stupid and harmful ones. — DA

1See most religion, utopian experiments, contemporary psychology, scientific futurism, psychotropic medication, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

2E.g. Wallace Shawn’s appreciation of a cold cup of coffee in My Dinner With Andre

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