Chapter 36
Heard at the Boston Book Festival 2014

A couple technology-related sessions

20141025.1100 Technology Promise and Peril

David Rose, MIT Media Lab

He has really neat toys in his house, which he calls "enchanted objects." Examples:

  • A Google Earth coffee table that is always on, often used for family discussions in the living room;
  • An umbrella that lights up when there is rain predicted, so that you remember to take it with you that day;
  • A Skype cabinet for the kids to talk to their grandparents; just open the doors and it makes a connection.

Andrew McAfee, MIT Sloane School, author of Enterprise 2.0 and Race Against the Machine

Sometimes called "Doctor Doom" for his views on future employment.

Technological progress does not necessarily benefit all equally. Mere labor with no differentiation (skills) loses. For example, the technology of the 18th century was steam, which displaced a lot of unskilled manual labor.

George Jetson actually drove his vehicle to work? Won't happen. Self-driving vehicles are much safer.

Nick Parr, The Glass Cage In the future, you might not have a job, but you'll have a really cool umbrella.

1950s and later automation turned laborers into machine operators, button pushers. They became lower-skilled. Examples: pilots, doctors, accountants, etc., largely became computer operators. The tools we use, not just the production methods, change our experience. Do they enrich it or impoverish it?

Today we are highly dependent on technology to engage the world.

Q & A

Do you want airline pilots to have enriching experiences or boring ones? If they don't have some enrichment, their skills get rusty, and a new type of accident emerges where they can't respond quickly or correctly.

Skill deterioration accompanies most progress.

  • How quickly did people lose their slide rule skills after the calculator became common?
  • Autotune reduces the skill required for singers.
  • This is becoming a crisis for some professions such as architecture. Dependence on automated tools, erosion of manual skills and a feel for design.

The "Peter and the Wolf" doorbell: system senses (by cell phone GPS) that a family member is coming home. It gives a warning signal at ten minutes out, five minutes out, one minute out, etc.

WAZE crowd-sourcing traffic app: figures speeds and times, gives turn-by-turn directions to avoid traffic jams. Free app on smartphone.

The "Internet of things" is a real security threat, and that is not being taken seriously enough.

The memory of our systems is too long.

We want the interaction with machines to be easy, but that doesn't mean that life will be easy.

20141025.1415 Digital by Design

Judith Donath, MIT and Berkman Center Social cues are missing online, makes communication much more difficult.

Early Internet trolls harassed newsgroups. Often cruel deliberately. Wanted to control the flow of comments, which were the entire conversation. Now they threaten people on social media.

Howard Gardner, Harvard Graduate School of Education Once there was "the greatest generation." Then the techno generation. Now the app generation. These kids are often described as being risk-averse.

Apps are good when they enable people to do something that was previously out of reach, like a specialized tool; enable tasks that were too hard, too time-consuming. Apps are bad when we become dependent on them for some activities that we used to do without them. We have to follow their strict rules or we just can't do whatever it is.

New electronic identities: avatars, roles in role-playing techno-worlds. Many "friendships" are entirely transactional relative to these roles.

Studied the art and fiction of students, compared kids' output from 1990 to 2010.

  • Visual elements became more imaginative, graphically more sophisticated (e.g., cropped, asymmetric, finished).
  • Text elements became very pedestrian, boring: linear in time, third person, formal or slangy.

Vikram Chandra, novelist, author of Geek Sublime We should write code for the future generations that will read it. Be expressive, clear. Be an essayist of code. Code should describe a narrative, should be beautiful.

The size of code today transcends human understanding. E.g., the Linux operating system used all over the net is 200 million lines of code.

Some programs live forever because they are hard to fix. E.g., there are seven million lines of COBOL, dating from as early as 1967, still running today.

Sanskrit was a formal language, had very simple grammar rules. This stabilized the language for 2500 years. The grammar was not formally described until the 18th century.

Poetry is beautiful for what is doesn't say, often expresses ideas backwards or with irony.

Q & A

Online identities are very slippery, very easy to change. This means that there are no consequences for bad behavior.

"Astroturfing:" the opposite of "grass roots." A group deliberately formed, usually online, for a lobbying purpose.

What are the "multiple intelligences" in the app generation?

What is the current definition of "art?" It's interesting visually, its form is pleasing, and therefore it's worth my time to pay attention.

How to UIs change for smaller devices?

  • The interfaces are smaller, but there are many of them, and they stick with you.
  • They are highly specialized to the application at hand.
  • They deal with very simple questions: where, when what.

The Flynn effect? (Long-term increase in intelligence test scores from the 1930s on in many parts of the world.) Well, certainly more people are going to school.

Some of the app generation really believe that a smartphone is the gateway to all the answers to all questions. Well, maybe, but only the unimportant, factual questions.

Yes, we shape our technology, but the technology is shaping us, too. Many kids today, for instance, have never been lost. We are too dependent on our technologies. This is part of our risk-aversion.