Category: Technology

Technological creep

Network from Michael Rigley on Vimeo. [video link]

About halfway through last month my Samsung Galaxy S III’s data connection slowed down to 30 kbs a second, which is roughly the speed of an old modem. At first I wondered if there was a software glitch or some technical issues with my provider. It turns out the problem was that I had used up my one gig a month quota of data transfer, which pushed me into the slow lane until the end of the month. It was an interesting psychological experience. It reminded me of what it is like to be on the other side of the digital divide, and also the nefarious consequences of a world in which net connection is not neutral: pay a premium price for the tollway or get stuck in a traffic jam.

But what I found incredibly interesting is how this telecom strategy resembles the gambling industry: tantalize the customer just enough to want more, but make sure that the odds are always in favor of the house. In my case, moderate use of internet on my cellphone– such as checking email, Twitter and Facebook, and the occasional use of apps for navigation or bus schedules–seemed to keep me under the limit. Then I discovered Spotify, podcasts and multimedia, all of which gobble data connections at a ridiculous rate. Suddenly I wanted more. And all those years that I commuted without the aid of a fast, multimedia connection were forgotten quickly. What’s even worse, not only does my telecom find ways to charge me more every month, but it also resells my data without giving me a cut.

The psychological crisis described above is often attributed to technology addiction. But I think that is a misdirection. Is the carpenter addicted to hammers when she is building houses? The phone is just a tool to achieve something else. The addiction is not in the tool, but in the desire to eleviate bordom or the need to feel connected to others. These are mind states that exist with or without technology; the phone just makes it easier to scratch that mental itch.

But this leads to a much bigger issue related to recent news about massive government spying. One gets the feeling (especially after watching the video posted above) that these surveillance technologies are autonomous and beyond the control of their users. It feels this way because there is an architectural logic that access to the data dictates that it should be consumed–either to spy on or to commoditize users. It’s too easy and tempting to resist. And if you are part of a control freak security state, what better way to facilitate this mania than to just Hoover up the entire internet. Like frogs in a pot of water that’s gradually boiling, we have casually allowed this erosion of our rights for the sake of convenience. It’s the same as that casino psychology tethering me to the telecom’s business model: as long as it’s convenient and stimulates the right pleasure centers, I’ll keep dropping coins into the machine .

But am I willing to just stop? We have to be cautious about some of the anti-technology arguments that posit machines as autonomous from human control. While it is true that we tend to conform our behaviors to the structures that we create, those structures can also be changed. After all, they are created as a result of human culture. In this case, it’s not necessarily that technology is controlling our behavior, it is that technology has become the metaphor for how many view the world. For example, the faith in Big Data and information control comes from a blind acceptance of mechanism, which is a 19th century model of the universe based on a machine.

But the metaphors we use can change, and hence alter how we view the world. An organic metaphor, such “ecosystem,” can help us shift perspective so that we view technology not as a dominating system of control and efficiency, but rather a component of a complex system that also involves human agency. Not only that, lest we forget, these technologies also create feedback loops within living systems, which means that certain kinds of technologies that are not sustainable will simply cease to exist.

So if total surveillance is part of a strategy to reconcile the needs of protecting the carbon economy and the national security state, they are both doomed to fail. Of course, the fear is that they will take all of us down with them. This is a legitimate concern. It seems to me that Big Data and leaking are two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, governments and corporations are compiling an inordinate amount of data on us. On the other hand, they are compiling data about their own activities which inevitably gets into our hands through the brave actions of leakers. So just as our information is at the mercy of systems that seem beyond our reach, those systems are also vulnerable to their own methods.

How clean is the data cloud?


An excellent report and article detailing the dirty secrets of the cloud.

As I report in my forthcoming book:

What the BP case shows is that media decolonization requires decoupling our media from the carbon economy. For those of us who use computers and networks, this will mean a transitional period, since currently our consumption of electronics and energy use are increasingly large sources of C02 emissions. In fact, computer networks now produce more carbon emissions than the airlines industry. A Google server farm will use as much electricity as a city of 250,000 people, so efforts by companies like Google to transition to renewable energy is absolutely necessary. But with the exponential growth of the information economy, we may be drowning in data anyway. For example, some communications scholars argue that data clouds, bloated software, redundant archiving, and media rich data centers are pushing the overall planetary impact of physical data storage to unsustainable levels (“The Internet Begins with Coal” titles one report about network power consumption). They suggest that it will become increasingly necessary to ration data, meaning that people should be sharing copies of media rather than having to access them from multiple clouds. Unfortunately, the current push toward cloud computing by dominant corporate providers Balkanizes the net into data fiefdoms, leading to less compatibility and sharing.

As long as we perpetuate the current fossil fuel regime, the belief that unlimited data is harmless to the biosphere will remain intrinsically bound to the creed that information is weightless and immaterial. This situation, the researchers argue, parallels our treatment of the oceans, which are being pushed to the brink of ecological collapse because people have assumed their capacity for producing food and absorbing pollution is limitless. Not only is linking computer and network usage directly to their impact on the environment a crucial step toward green cultural citizenship, it’s a radical challenge to a status quo predicated on tightly restricted intellectual property. Proprietary control of data is the ultimate tragedy of the commons. Ultimately, only a culture based on a cultural commons that values sharing resources would ensure that the next wave of computing doesn’t result in black clouds in our atmosphere.

Here’s a GreenPeace link to take action.

Control the means of reproduction: Media-tech innovation @ #OWS


The Webzine Motherboard offers this fantastic glimpse into how a group of techie activists seek to revolutionize networking. In an effort to create software/hardware that matches the concept of the Occupy General Assembly, the Free Network Foundation is taking McLuhan’s aphorism to heart: the medium of an independent P2P network is the message.

In their own words:

  • We envision communications infrastructure that is owned and operated cooperatively, by the whole of humanity, rather than by corporations and states.
  • We are using the power of peer-to-peer technologies to create a global network which is immune to censorship and resistant to breakdown.
  • We promote freedoms, support innovations and advocate technologies that enhance and enable digital self-determination.

Ericsson’s smiley-faced vision of a totalitarian future?

Ericsson’s “Networked Society ‘On the Brink'” ignores some big questions. Is a life of more data really a better life? I agree that some of the trends the video describes are appealing, but I also fear that this little propaganda film by one of the world’s largest mobile companies is really encouraging people to view themselves as data gadgets rather than as human beings. For example, its vision of education is that we get to watch more lecture videos on the Internet. And healthcare is a matter of quantifying the body’s functions.

What is made to look so forward thinking and innovative strikes me as repackaged technological totalitarianism. While Ericsson promises to be paradigm-shifting, this is still about good old-fashioned consumerism. The tipoff is the dreamy soundtrack, which is always a cue that media companies are inviting us to uncritically enter into their fantasy world. I would be more optimistic if they talked about the possibility of the networked society as a means for dismantling global capitalism and organizing regional occupations.

To be fair, the company does have an assortment of sustainability and social responsibility commitments (check here for their self-assessment). Nonetheless, are these measures compatible with the deep cultural changes necessary to create a sustainable world? I don’t have the answer, but I remain suspicious.

Against the machine: Thoughts on Curtis’ machine trilogy

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Ep. 1): “Love and Power”

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Ep. 2): “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts”

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Ep. 3): “The Monkey In The Machine and the Machine in the Monkey”

I just finished watching Adam Curtis‘ epic polemic against the danger and abuse of machine metaphors in our society, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” (all three episodes are posted above). I’ve been a fan of his quirky documentaries: “Century of the Self” and “The Power of Nightmares” are a grave attacks against the cult of marketing and mass manipulation. This current effort is more complex and nuanced. He documents the folly of different groups extrapolating computer metaphors in order to explain nature and human society. He shows the tremendous irresponsibility of Western powers who have used ecological “holism” to justify imperial ambitions, and fears that environmental movements and social media advocates run the risk of similar metaphor abuse.

Curtis attacks the idea of holism as anti-individual. I don’t think it’s fair, but because it has often been misplaced, to him any invocation of a holistic view of humans is anathema. I find the critique a little too harsh and generalized, although I appreciate some of his attacks. In particular I like his polemic against biology based on theories of the selfish gene. Curtis correctly points out it is a machine metaphor applied to cell biology. There also is a blistering attack against using computer networks to drive the global economy, which again is justified. Finally, he does a good job of showing that these ideas are often subservient to neocolonial ambitions. Fair enough.

It’s hard to tell what exactly what Curtis wants to do with this project. It seems like he is defending Enlightenment principles of the individual against emerging cultural views of interconnectivity. Curtis offers a choice of one against the other, as opposed to trying to find a balance between the two. Moreover, he critiques quite heavily the liberal project of democracy in Africa without acknowledging its roots in Enlightenment concepts of the individual.

Curtis criticizes ecological models based on systems theory as a false solution for global ecology. In response he seems to argue for political and social change–conscious human interventions to solve problems–but then criticizes the revolutions that arose in Eastern Europe because they self-organized with the aid of computers. He argues that those revolutions failed, and in fact have created situations far worse than before. There is some nostalgia, I believe, for good old fashion ideology.

Curtis’ contrarian perspective comes at an interesting time. The Arab awakening, global climate chaos and crashing economies seem to be outgrowths and responses to the Enlightenment project. Are computer networks the engine of change? Or is it that networks have been abused by old thinking and misapplied metaphors? The past colonizes the present. And designs the future.

Curtis casts a wide net, associating Ayn Rand with computer network technology, neoliberal economics, ecology, biology and colonialism. Are these interconnections real? By his own logic, is such a grand conspiracy the result of the kind systems thinking he rails against? I believe much of what Curtis offers is necessary and good for discussion. It certainly slaughters a lot of sacred cows, even though the approach is one of scorched earth. It would be interesting to see Curtis debate Yochai Benkler, who takes an opposite view of networks.

Aesthetically I like the style of his films: the odd mix of kooky ephemeral films juxtaposed to eclectic and often unusual choices in music make his rants a fun romp. One thing is for sure, these documentaries are far from boring.

Can the iPhone be greened?

This infographic tells an interesting story about the iPhone’s ecological footprint. On the one hand it shows many negatives about cell phone production. On the other, it also demonstrates that ecology can and should be designed into the production chain of the device. Notice the difference between the iPhone 3 and 4 and how changing packaging made a large difference in emissions. Apple is putting up a good front, and in many ways they are responding to pressure from both the public and from organizations like GreenPeace. Apple can still do a better job. The recent news that they invested in a huge coal-powered data processing center was a big setback for the company, which caused GreenPeace to lower its environmental rating, despite the improvements made in the manufacturing process that eliminated a lot of toxins in their new products. Goes to show that greening is not a linear process but involves a holistic “solving for pattern” approach.

how green is the iphone
Geekaphone’s How Green is the iPhone Infographic

The ecopyschology of cell phones

Cingular uses a “family tree” metaphor to describe its service

For my digital media class I gave my students a non-digital assignment. I asked them to walk into Rome and get lost. No phones, no maps, no iPods, no books, no pens, no media. The idea was to defamiliarize their digital environment by removing them from it. The other point was to have them observe different aspects of urban design and to pay attention to how specific spaces “afforded” particular interactions.

In a city 3,000 years old, it is a good place to study those spaces that were designed for human scale. For example, the ideal spatial configuration for a piazza is that it should be no larger than the distance that people can recognize each other from. For background material, I assigned the first two chapters of Digital Ground: Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing, which explores interactivity, embodiment, spatial literacy and pervasive computing.

Students were then required to blog about their experiences. As predicted the responses were mixed. Some were elated and felt they had experienced the city for the first time. Others noticed new details that had alluded them. One even said she smelled the city for the first time. For others the experience made them angry and anxious. What was common for most of them was a sense of loss, loneliness and disconnection.

Most interesting was the belief that they needed to be available for others– that their friends and family would worry about them if they were not tethered to their networks. I found this to be a most curious kind of anxiety, something “new” to our digital environment. As a kid I remember my friends and I taking off for the day with our bicycles and skateboards without worrying about checking in or needing to avail ourselves to those who were not with us.

This pervasive need to be available to others, I’m guessing, is really about affirmation. The idea that someone might need them is necessary to validates their worthiness. In other words, they need the net to mirror back to them a purpose for existing. Sherry Turkle‘s new book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, argues something along these lines. In her Fast Company interview, she says,

“If you get into these email, Facebook thumbs-up/thumbs-down settings, a paradoxical thing happens: even though you’re alone, you get into this situation where you’re continually looking for your next message, and to have a sense of approval and validation. You’re alone but looking for approval as though you were together–the little red light going off on the BlackBerry to see if you have somebody’s validation. I make a statement in the book, that if you don’t learn how to be alone, you’ll always be lonely, that loneliness is failed solitude. We’re raising a generation that has grown up with constant connection, and only knows how to be lonely when not connected. This capacity for generative solitude is very important for the creative process, but if you grow up thinking it’s your right and due to be tweeted and retweeted, to have thumbs up on Facebook…we’re losing a capacity for autonomy both intellectual and emotional.”

So what does this have to do with ecopsychology? David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World uses phenomenology to explain how the environment makes available to us our consciousness; it affords us possible interactions and thereby co-creates our thoughts. This concurs with the work of Maturana and Varela (see Tree of Knowledge) who argue that awareness is always an emergent aspect of our mind/body coupling with the environment.

The issue is that the electronic net affords a different phenomenology than the one our brains are wired for: 3-D physiological space. Digital Ground argues this is why the project of virtual reality keeps failing: our inner ears cannot reconcile the flying dream imagined by the early depictions of cyberspace in sci-fi film’s and books. Rather than projecting ourselves through the computer screen’s window, computers come to us via their ubiquitous presence in our environment.

Robert Romanyshyn argues in his amazing book, Technology as Symptom and Dream, that when we banished spirits from nature, they became angels. And through technologies like linear perspective we seek to become gods, pushing forward an ongoing project of disembodiment from natural systems. The ecopsychology argument is that disembodiment is how we react to trauma. Unconsciously we mourn the loss of connection with “nature” and to avoid the pain we extend our consciousness into ever “higher” realms, with space flight being the epitome of this desire. de Chardin‘s vision of the noosphere— or what contemporary net Utopians call the global brain– has a similar yearning to transcend the body for some kind of Christ-like uber-consciousness.

Now, I don’t want to over simplify what is really going on with cell phones. It is surely more complicated. For example, the idea that a person is not an isolated, autonomous self, but exists within an embedded network is surely a step toward sustainable awareness. One of our biggest challenges is to disrupt the Enlightenment self so as to promote a greater sense of interconnectivity with the materiality of the physical environment. Additionally, this idea of what is natural and what is not furthers the problem. I don’t think it is productive to say that the extended net of our electronic experience is “unnatural,” but it is certainly different than the ideal of the neolithic tribe living harmoniously with its landscape. Whether we like it or not, we are cyborgs, and it is best that we find some kind of coping mechanism because the digital genie is out of the bottle.

The important thing is for people to learn how to moderate their interaction so as to not amputate those senses that eagerly wish to engage the sights, smells, sound and tastes of the immediate environment. I suspect from tracking the comments of my students that they indeed long for these things, but cannot moderate their usage. They are, to use their own words, addicted. How to solve this problem will certainly be a task of educators. I for one do not have the answers, but ironically enough, through “crowd sourcing” on the net, perhaps we can collectively figure it out together.

Social media: Plastic bags of the Internet?

Can American Beauty‘s famous plastic bag scene generate as much introspection about beauty as the social Web?

Are social media fragments like plastic bags, which at first seem perfectly convenient and useful until you start seeing them blowing everywhere like wind through the hive mind? Obviously it’s a false analogy, because bags don’t network with each other (at least not for now). But ephemeral little posts float past our lives and at times can feel just as polluting as plastic waste.

I often wonder if the social media world is a solipsistic self-referential bubble that is only relevant to itself. Though I’m still not settled on how I feel about it (I continue to participate), there seems to be a some indications emanating from the bubble’s membrane that many people are not convinced of the hype. Douglas Rushkoff, whose book Program or Be Programmed I just blogged about, is a known skeptic. But there’s also now rumbling’s from some unexpected places. I just picked up Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, which is a wonderful polemic against the dangers of the social Web reducing humans into binary bits (if you are old enough to remember, Lanier was an early proponent and designer of virtual reality). And then there’s Sherry Turkle, who has always been ambivalent about life on screen. Her new book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, steps up the criticism.

This Fast Company interview with Turkle starts out with the statement, “I didn’t realize MIT hired Luddites.” Such usage is pejorative. It is part of the flak that keeps people from honestly confronting that which we take for granted, namely the ubiquitous presence of the net in our lives. To its credit, Fast Company is airing these views, albeit in guarded, qualified terms (also, it would appear that one must be from MIT, home of Nicholas Being Digital Negropante, to be authoritative enough to say something).

The trouble is that whenever anyone critiques the Web or technology, they are immediately attacked as Luddites. This is an abuse of history, and people should not use the term without fully understanding its implications. Luddites were not anti-technology. What they were against was the dismantling of their livelihood by automation. They destroyed factory machines because of how they disrupted the social fabric of their communities. Luddites did not accept uncritically the notion that they had to pay a price for so-called progress. Unfortunately we live in a day and age when “progress” and “growth” are dogma that can’t be criticized. They are sacred in the same way that once we were not allowed to say the world was round. I suggest that if people want to really understand the Luddites, they should read Kirkpatrick Sale’s excellent historical account, Rebels Against The Future: The Luddites And Their War On The Industrial Revolution: Lessons For The Computer Age (great title, isn’t it?).

Lanier is right to point out that technology criticism should not just come from the so-called Luddites. It should be coming from programmers and users alike. Otherwise how can we argue for a more humane and sustainable system?

I’m in the weird zone of being between the blind media progressives (not liberals but those who celebrate progress at any cost) and the anti-technology polemicists from the ecology movement. I’m trying to find a middle way, but like the noise generated between the left and right, it’s hard to find compromise. I think part of the problem is that for those of us who like technology and use the tools, we take it personally when critics like Nicholas Carr come out and say that Google is making us stupid.

However, I think it is our responsibility as cultural citizens to not just be consumers, but to critically engage our reality. Because most of us are not engineers or programmers, we often feel like we have no choice. And given the political and economic climate where Comcast, Verizon and ATT can have their way, it often feels like we users are pretty small in the greater scheme of things. I don’t have the solution, but I think it is important to at least understand what is at stake. We can start from an empowered position that we are cultural citizens, or more importantly, green cultural citizens. To quote Toby Miller and Richard Maxwell from Climate Change and the Media:

“Economic citizenship predicated on limitless media growth diminishes potentially egalitarian and sustainable production, consumption, and participation, because it omits the impact on climate change of media technology and uptake…. Green citizenship looks centuries ahead, refusing to discount the health and value of future generations as it opposes elemental risks created by capitalist growth in the present. This necessitates an eco-ethical orientation toward the media.”

As I have stated at other points, I’m a Net agnostic. There is much I like, but at the same time I want to caution against blind Utopianism. Let’s just say that for now in term’s of the Net’s longterm impact on society, the jury is out having a picnic with their friends. I think it is fair to heed Lanier’s advice to be cautious of the social Web’s promiscuity, and to not just clutter the world with plastic bags of the mind.

Institutionalized: you’re the one who’s crazy (and other thoughts about education)

Institutionalized by Suicidal Tendencies (sorry about the stupid ad at the beginning)

Like the word “community,” when we hear the term “education” we feel warm and fuzzy. It can always be good, right? This attitude might not be too productive as demonstrated in a recent New York Times piece railing against social media (check out this nice rebuttal from the Nieman Journalism Lab). In the NYTimes article school came across like a hapless victim of smart phones and Facebook. It compared recent brain research showing how our gadgets and social software hurts school performance, yet the article never challenges this very idea of “performance.” In particular the story featured a young man who’d rather edit a video on his Mac than study Latin. Think about it: making media versus learning a dead language, who’s gonna win that battle? The problem with the article is that it gave school the default position of all that is “good” about schooling and made youth media practice the foil. Sound familiar? I don’t want to equate Facebook with rock and roll, but this is a 50 year-old polemic, with roots going as far back as Plato.

With that said, I don’t want to give social media and wireless gadgetry a free pass. But it also shouldn’t be an either or discussion. By contrast, it needs to be argued that literacy of media gadgets and network usage is ever more necessary. But will it be taught in school? Most likely not. Rather than be confronted in a meaningful way it will just be banned, made forbidden and a non-topic. This is a shame, because if there ever was a place for young people to become literate of the tools that are shaping cognition and impacting culture and economics, school would be a logical site for it.

Unfortunately, “school” is broken. Which puts me in an awkward place, because I am sympathetic to the protests against ed reform policies, but in other ways I’m against school. In light of the financial restructuring taking place in Europe and North American, these policies are part of a general re-feudalization of the world. These reforms are actually a logical progression of education policy going back for decades which has sought to reduce learning to a technocratic and mechanistic activity designed for the information economy. Reforms are designed to break the public gains of the Enlightenment, while preserving the more nefarious benefits of the past 500 years for the “elites” (banking, finance, captains of industrial-scientific “progress,” etc.). There are lots of problems with Enlightenment thinking, especially in regards to ecology, its idealogical co-dependence with capitalism, and the belief in an isolated, autonomous self. Yet cosmopolitanism should be considered a good side-effect, and at one point this was one of the goals of liberal education.

Three books I’ve been reading lately confront this problem. Deschooling Society (Open Forum), written in 1970 by Ivan Ilich, is a remarkably prescient book. Hard to believe it is 40 years-old, because almost every word is a prophesy for the present moment. He argues that schools are an expensive means for conditioning people to accept the institutionalization of learning, and to learn how to be institutionalized (see video pasted above). Learning can only be decided by experts and paid professionals, reinforcing a dependence on the irrational inner-logic of bureaucracy (a la Kafka)* without regard to that which is required or practical for daily life, as is the case with the disconnect between standardized testing and the skills necessary for being global citizens. Though I should have read this book years ago, in a way it is the right book for the moment because many of the solutions he envisioned–DIY education using networks and open source tools–have become reality. Several of the ideas he has for deschooling can be facilitated by the likes of YouTube, Craigslist and alternative educations projects sprouting up all over the net (it would take a much longer post to list them all– you can start by typing “open education” into your search engine and see where it takes you).

Illich differentiates between open (“learning Webs”) and closed networks (“manipulative institutions”), which sounds a bit like the struggle between open education and the privatization of learning. To apply an ecological metaphor, maybe education can be more like a rhizomatic network of mushrooms instead of a monocultural crop of soy beans. I could exhaust my fingers covering the array of ideas in Deschooling Society, but suffice to say it is a tight little polemic at 116 pages and can be read in a day.

Unfortunately, open education has the danger of being a trojan horse for the neo-feudalization of education. DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, a recent book about self-education, features an assortment of advocates for open education that range from artisons, monks to entrepreneurs. Many of the ideas are inspirational and well intended, but their motives don’t all agree. Anya Kamenetz has a valid argument that most students should not have to go deeply in debt for an education which is increasingly suspect. I, for one, am guilty, and will end up at least 50 K in debt by the time I get my PhD. And that is a light load compared to many whose post-graduate debt tops 100 K. For my credential I’ve indentured myself to the banks with little chance that it will pay back my investment. And this is the kind of thinking that Ilich rails against: education should not be about turning students into customers. But the reforms being proposed in the UK use that kind of language, and as a college professor it is well known that we are being asked to deliver a product to the students. But I digress. Going back to DIY U, creating our own education via an assortment of open access resources (including those driven by corporate driven incentives) sounds kinda cool, but the implications for society are complicated. Are we saying that credentialing should be done away with, or even privitized? Are we saying that education is not a public good or right and should be left to the scavenging of the marketplace? This is where anarchism and libertarianism can sometimes feed off each other, which makes for strange bedfellows, for sure.

The last book I want to mention is EduFactory Collective‘s Toward a Global Autonomous University: Cognitive Labor, The Production of Knowledge, and Exodus from the Education Factory. The book is a little of a cross between Deschooling Society and DIY U. It is a savage critique of the economics of university, and also proposes alternatives of the punk rock variety. This is certainly more critical of the system than DIY U, and is written in a much different format (and tone) because it is presented from the perspective of a collective enterprise rather than as a journalistic foray in the magazinespeak of FastCompany (as is the case with DIY U). In this sense, the book models the kind of approach it advocates.

I wish I had time to write a more in-depth analysis of these books and their implications, but unfortunately I’m out of time and must get back to work. Consider this some outloud thinking as I work through these ideas. I apologize for their incompleteness.

* A good example is getting a drivers license in Italy. The Italian bureaucracy is so complicated that you are forced to pay a driving school to handle the paper work for the license. Meanwhile, the horrendous and godawful test takes months to prepare for through rote memorization with a net result that no one follows the laws. In my case it took five months and 500 euros to do what normally takes half a day in the United States for a fraction of the cost.

Stuff’s e-wasting away

More reasons to feel crappy about being plugged in, but knowledge is power. Right? In particular designers need to rethink built-in obsolescence (anyone from Apple reading this?) and to design better products that don’t just satisfy our fetishes but actually factor in the environment.

I like the suggestion to pass take-back laws which will force electronics makers to do something with all their old crap. However, getting the laws passed will be an interesting exercise in democracy. Imagine the Tea Party/Republican outrage against forcing American companies to recycle their toxic goods. How dare we violate the right of free enterprise to toxify the planet as they please and to prevent families from forced bankruptcy when they need treatment for illnesses caused by electronic waste. Yep, nothing like the free spirit of capitalism.

Here is an excellent resource page from the Center for Environmental Health on how to do something about our e-waste.

Book as environment

The Future of the Book. from IDEO on Vimeo.

I hate to borrow books. To my detriment I have to own them. It’s a weird psychosis, but there you have it. Even for one reference I buy the book. Too bad they don’t pay rent for the space they take up, but I guess it’s better to have books as squatters than relative or friends!

Are e-readers the answer?

I have yet to be sold on e-readers–I’m still old school enough to like holding books in my hands. I can see using an e-reader for page-turning novels, but not for deep-reading and cross-referencing (my thumb still remains the best reading technology available). I constantly check footnotes and the bibliography, and also write notes and underline all my books.

Nonetheless, the concepts presented in the above video by IDEO–a very innovative design studio– has gotten my attention. One of the “battles” of ecologically designed media literacy is to convey the intertextuality of any media–the relationships that help shape the text, such as genre codes, “paratexts” (related texts that contribute to our understanding, such as reviews, interviews, Wikipedia, past interpretations, etc.). (For a more in-depth expanation, Jonathan Gray’s Watching With The Simpsons: Television, Parody, And Intertextuality has one of the best discussion of intertextuality in print.) If there were an app that helped people discover a text’s ecology–that is, its vast relations with other contexts (readers, writers, commentators, other texts, etc.), we can start to view media more systemically and not just as a series of self-contained, atomized things.

Which brings me to its application for sustainability education. As Mary Catherine Bateson argues,

“The tools that will be needed to communicate about the process of climate change have the potential for further broad changes in habits of thought, leading the individual child or adult into a sense of being a part of the biosphere. Such tools include systems metaphors, narratives of connection, cross-overs between disciplines, and cross-overs with ways of knowing such as participant observation. The ultimate goal is an education for global responsibility that unfolds in a pattern of lifelong learning.” (p. 282*)

Such techniques, she suggests, entail incorporating the following approaches:

1) working with environmental metaphors and systems analogies;
2) using narrative;
3) making connections across contexts; and
4) participant observation.

Based on what I’ve seen in the video, the EIDO prototypes could incorporate the above functions and bridge media literacy with systems/ecological understandings of texts. The prospect is quite exciting.

Bateson, M. C. (2007). Education for global responsibility. In S. C. Moser, & L. Dilling (Eds.), Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change (pp. 281-91). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Conflict (mineral) resolution

In my efforts to be more holistic with my media literacy approach I’ve been moving in the direction of not just looking at the content of media, but their entire production process, from the making of content to the production of gadgets. There’s a good book,Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman, which takes the “circuit of culture” approach by looking at how representation, identity, production, consumption and regulation are recursive. We need to update this model to incorporate a sense of social justice, as the above video is pushing for, and also the ecological dimension of production. It’s not just that conflict minerals are a problem in the supply chain, there is also disposal and externalization of the toxic byproduct resulting from built-in obsolescence (you know, what happens to your computer or iPod after you upgrade it).

Defective thinking and the iPad


Wired has a bunch of smart guys ruminating about the the iPad’s impact on computing. As to be expected in Wired, there is a dearth of discussion about the impact of obsolescence on the environment. On a separate note, with so many brilliant minds in the room, surpassingly only one person made an intelligent comment: Steven Johnson (author of Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software ). You can read a snip below, but essentially he points to the fundamental contradiction between technological access and corporate gatekeepers. If we want a truly ecological gadget–that is, one that is open, shareable and hence designed to evolve the way that ecosystems are–than DRM and copyright are going to have to be radically reconsidered. In the end, I don’t believe we can reconcile a closed system (the current regime of intellectual property) and an open system like the Internet. One will have to give.

For more on the iPad’s DRM issues, check out

13 of the Brightest Tech Minds Sound Off on the Rise of the Tablet | Magazine:

The End of an Era

“But then something extraordinary happened. The personal computer proved to be more than just a fancy calculator. It turned out to be a device for doing things with words. Each milestone in computation and connectivity unleashed a new wave of textual breakthroughs: Early networks gave rise to email and Usenet; the Mac UI made reading text on the screen tolerable; the Internet platform (and the NeXT development environment) made it possible for one man to invent a universal hypertext system; Google harnessed distributed computing to make the entire Web searchable in microseconds; and thanks to Wi-Fi and cellular networks, along with hardware miniaturization, we can now download a novel to an ebook in 10 seconds.

It has been an exhilarating ride, but it is coming to an end, and that magical experience of instantly pulling Middlemarch out of the ether and onto your Kindle suggests why: Compared to other kinds of information that computers process today, text has an exceptionally small footprint. With the arrival of the tablet, we have crossed a critical threshold: Where text is concerned, we effectively have infinite computational resources, connectivity, and portability. For decades, futurists have dreamed of the “universal book”: a handheld reading device that would give you instant access to every book in the Library of Congress. In the tablet era, it’s no longer technology holding us back from realizing that vision; it’s the copyright holders.”

The future is always/never dangerous

In simple terms, the rise of a scientific society means a society of constant expectations directed toward the oncoming future. What we have is always second best, what we expect to have is ‘progress.’ What we seek, in the end, is Utopia. In the endless pursuit of the future we have ended by engaging to destroy the present.

Loren Eiseley, The Invisible Pyramid


I’m in the process of developing a malady called “astronautitis” in which I increasingly view the efforts to explore space a failure of imagination to find a way home to Earth. As Loren Eiseley argues in The Invisible Pyramid, the space program is not much different than the pharos trying to achieve immortality with their public works programs of yore. Eiseley goes as far to say that humanity is behaving like a slime mould in which it devours as much as possible before death so that it can shoot spores out into space in order to reproduce.

Anyhow, I like Dmitry Orlov‘s take on economics and observations about collapsing empires (Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects). What follows is a snip from his blog in which he discusses in an interview, among other things, the decline of technology as a result of resource depletion, and the fate of space programs.

ClubOrlov: Marketing in a Small Town – Interview No. 3:

DD: Recently on CNN there was a report about the U.S. mission to the moon. The Indians are planning to land there in 2020, the Russians and Americans in 2025, and the Chinese in 2030. I think that the popularity of conspiracy theories about the staging of those events is that we find it hard to imagine that we can not repeat the achievements of three decades ago without a huge effort. Meanwhile, examples similar to the lunar program are starting to occur more and more frequently. Experts say that Russia has lost the ability to produce modern weapons on a large scale for quite trivial reasons, such as lack of sufficiently skilled metalworkers, because the system of training them has collapsed. How justified are we in fearing that we (the world in general, not just Russia) are starting to slip back in time in terms of technology?

DO: In the end, the history of human trips to space will engender new myths: the primitive idols of the future will not be winged, but will sit astride rockets dressed in spacesuits. These trips were only possible thanks to large-scale industrial systems based on the use of fossil hydrocarbons, reserves which have already been exhausted, on average, about half. It will not be possible to exhaust them completely: the technological rollback has already started. It starts long before a particular resource is completely exhausted. To maintain homeostatic equilibrium, an industrial system requires a continuous flow of investment, and in order for this to happen capital must continually be created. If, say, the profitability of a coal mine is inversely proportional to shaft depth, it is enough to get to a depth at which the income is not sufficient to continue to update equipment, and the mine will close, regardless of how much coal there is left in it. But such a rational approach is rarely taken. Rather than make a difficult but timely decision, everyone begins to economize on safety, defer repairs, take on debt and so on. Periodically, the idea comes up that the situation can be improved if only everyone would show more zeal or ingenuity. We certainly all need some level of technology, and we all ought to stop to think hard which technologies can be sustained at a continually decreasing level of extraction of various natural resources. Instantly the thought occurs that aerospace technologies will not make it onto this list.

When the signal dies no one can hear you scream

Cribbing another post from BoingBoing: Cory Doctorow posted the above video as a complaint against a lazy plot device. But I suspect dead cell phones in plot lines to be part of a greater anxiety, and began to craft a response in my mind, but bingo! the commenter Tdawwg nailed it. Without further ado:

Maybe this issue points to a problem with plot-heavy storytelling in an increasingly deterministic, mapped-out, known, surveilled, mechanistic, etc., world.

Think of a similar genre, the Wanted Man-Technothriller: Enemy of the State is an early example from the nineties. In these films, endless (and endlessly tiring) instances must be concocted whereby the harried protagonist just barely manages to slip by the evil conspiracymongers’ (or corporation’s, or gubbmint rogue death squad, or….) Nefarious Web of Ubiquitous Surveillance. Whereas if we’re to accept the central premise of the film, that there exists a They Who Are Evil And All-Powerful, They’d have fucked the hero three ways to Sunday in reel one: but somehow the hero always always slips past the ever-tightening net of surveillance and control.

In the suspense-horror case, the fear comes from the existential threats of not being able to plug into the Grid (loss of safety and security); in the technothriller case, the fear comes from the existential threats of not being able to jack out of the Grid (loss of freedom and agency). And since these aren’t so much reflective or exploratory arty films, but plot-heavy popcorn summer blockbusters or the reliable, cheap thrills of contemporary horror flicks, so these completely stupid, adventitious reasons for tech failure keep popping up.

Thinking more about it, I really like how the clips above make technology the real monster-threat of the films. Good stuff.

Amputated dreams

Angel Tech

Antero Alli, a fellow traveler in the realm of the DIY spiritual underground, has an interesting commentary about the impact of immersive media, something I had not thought about. He says, below, that the loss of dream memeory is an amputation of the imagination caused by allowing devices to imagine for us. This is similar to McLuhan’s claim that whenever we transport our senses into mediation we end up cutting off our own bodily senses.

Reality Sandwich | Information Bombs and the Canary in the Coal Mine: A Talk with Antero Alli:

In this hypermedia saturated culture, especially with people born in the early ‘80s on, I think there is a certain imagination lobotomy that has occurred where the external media technologies and sources have gradually usurped the poetic genius or our innate ability to image their own realities. So we succumb to images more gorgeous, interesting, fascinating, or compelling than we can create out of our own imaginations. So the imagination dies, it withers — imagination death or soul loss is involved. I think part of also what gets lost is dream recall.

Personally I don’t really think that it’s that people don’t dream, but that they’ve lost dream recall. There’s an association in my mind between the loss of dream recall and power loss in people’s lives. People losing power, losing the ability to influence the world in ways that are meaningful to them. So power loss, loss of dream recall, loss of imagination are all tied into a larger cultural epidemic resulting from this acceleration of media technology and its interface with human consciousness. Especially any kind of immersion software like video gaming, VR technology, and sometimes even films and television and other kinds of media too, where it just overwhelms and sabotages or takes over the individual imagination.

… Imagination is the new canary in the cultural coal mine; imagination death precedes loss of the soul.

Laptop ecology

Portals (Yahoo, Google, AOL, etc.) have enabled guided Internet experiences, but Disney now takes it one step further. Its new Netpal notebook computer is entirely a computerized Disney environment. From ZDNet:

Developed with parents and kids in mind, the Disney Netpal has a reinforced mechanical design and, naturally, a Disney user interface. In addition to “more than 40 robust parental control options,” the Netpal sports an 8.9-in. LCD display, Wi-Fi, Windows XP Home and kid-friendly software featuring Disney characters.

I suspect these designer-brand net computers will be the wave of the future. We’ll move from generalized branded operating systems, such as Apple, Microsoft or Google, to more specifically designed interfaces that reflect particular styles and brand loyalty. Just as the skateboard industry has a variety of designer and custom boards, I foresee a slew of custom net systems. But I imagine that for now they will be mostly from high end (that is, well-endowed) corporate media brands (I’m sure Warner Brothers has one in the works), because the front-end design aspect must be prohibitive.

Is this Disney’s answer to the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project and its XO Laptop? Probably not, but it’s instructive to compare the two systems. Though the XO has its own custom operating system, it is open source, a guaruntee required by founder Nicholas Negroponte. Consider the 5 guiding principles of OLPC:

1. Child ownership

2. Low ages. Both hardware and software are designed for elementary school children ages 6–12.

3. Saturation

4. Connection

5. Free and open source

Also compare the high-minded mission of the OLPC with Disney. Guess which one cites radical educators like John Dewey and Paulo Freire as the inspiration for its interface? Perhaps only the Magic Kingdom’s dungeon guards would recognize these names.

It should be said this is not a clear case of good vs. evil. OLPC has its detractors and there is one particularly disturbing anecdote concerning a comment made (before the OLPC program was developed) by Negroponte during a radio interview with neo-Luddite Chellis Glendenning. When his utopian vision of the digital world was challenged by the fact that computer hardware production was causing babies to be born without brains in Mexico, he said it didn’t matter. The toxic waste of computer manufacturing and disposal remains a blind-spot enabled by its outsourcing from the core to the periphery and from lack of sufficient dialog about the problem.

PS Interesting how Disney’s deliberately amateurish Netpal intro video is intended to make it feel personal and endearing as opposed to cold and flashy. Where’s the magic?

Tools as temporary body parts

What follows is scientific verification of McLuhan’s concept of media as extensions of the body. I highly recommend reading the whole article.

Brain Represents Tools As Temporary Body Parts, Study Confirms:

Researchers have what they say is the first direct proof of a very old idea: that when we use a tool—even for just a few minutes—it changes the way our brain represents the size of our body. In other words, the tool becomes a part of what is known in psychology as our body schema, according to a report published in the June 23rd issue of Current Biology.