Switched on

Here’s a poetic exploration of the humble light switch, highlighting what may be lost if everything becomes smart.

Let there be light switches – from dark living rooms to dark ecology
It means the resilient light switch, like the door handle, reveals the accumulated touch of all those gone before, a patina of presence. Juhani Pallasmaa said that the doorhandle is the handshake of the building; is the light switch the equivalent for the room?

[…]

Pallasmaa, in his The Eyes of the Skin, noted that touch is a key part of remembering and understanding, that “tactile sense connects us with time and tradition: through impressions of touch we shake the hands of countless generations”. Is this reach for the switch merely functional, then? A light switch can stick around for decades, as with the doorhandle. When you touch the switch, you are subconsciously sensing the presence of others who have done so before you, and all those yet to do so. You are also directly touching infrastructure, the network of cables twisting out from our houses, from the writhing wires under our fingertips to the thicker fibres of cables, like limbs wrapped around each other, out into the countryside, into the National Grid.

If we always replace touch with voice activation, or simply by our presence entering a room, we are barely thinking or understanding, placing things out of mind. While data about those interactions exist, it is elsewhere, perceptible only to the eyes of the algorithm. We lose another element of our physicality, leaving no mark, literally. No sense of patina develops, except in invisible lines of code, datapoints feeding imperceptible learning systems of unknown provenance. As is often the case with unthinking smart systems, it is a highly individualising interface, revealing no trace of others.

I think I now need to re-read Bret Victor’s take on the future of interaction design, that I mentioned earlier.

Pictures under glass

Following on from yesterday’s post about Joe Clark’s frustrations with various aspects of iPhone interface design (and smartphone design more broadly, I think), here are a few more.

First, Craig Mod on the new iPads — amazing hardware, infuriating software.

Getting the iPad to Pro
The problems begin when you need multiple contexts. For example, you can’t open two documents in the same program side-by-side, allowing you to reference one set of edits, while applying them to a new document. Similarly, it’s frustrating that you can’t open the same document side-by-side. This is a weird use case, but until I couldn’t do it, I didn’t realize how often I did do it on my laptop. The best solution I’ve found is to use two writing apps, copy-and-paste, and open the two apps in split-screen mode.

Daily iPad use is riddled with these sorts of kludgey solutions.

Switching contexts is also cumbersome. If you’re researching in a browser and frequently jumping back and forth between, say, (the actually quite wonderful) Notes.app and Safari, you’ll sometimes find your cursor position lost. The Notes.app document you were just editing fully occasionally resetting to the top of itself. For a long document, this is infuriating and makes every CMD-TAB feel dangerous. It doesn’t always happen, the behavior is unpredictable, making things worse. This interface “brittleness” makes you feel like you’re using an OS in the wrong way.

How we use the OS, the user interface, is key. Here’s Bret Victor on why future visions of interface design are missing a huge trick – our hands are more than just pointy fingers.

A brief rant on the future of interaction design
Go ahead and pick up a book. Open it up to some page. Notice how you know where you are in the book by the distribution of weight in each hand, and the thickness of the page stacks between your fingers. Turn a page, and notice how you would know if you grabbed two pages together, by how they would slip apart when you rub them against each other.

Go ahead and pick up a glass of water. Take a sip. Notice how you know how much water is left, by how the weight shifts in response to you tipping it

Almost every object in the world offers this sort of feedback. It’s so taken for granted that we’re usually not even aware of it. Take a moment to pick up the objects around you. Use them as you normally would, and sense their tactile response — their texture, pliability, temperature; their distribution of weight; their edges, curves, and ridges; how they respond in your hand as you use them.

There’s a reason that our fingertips have some of the densest areas of nerve endings on the body. This is how we experience the world close-up. This is how our tools talk to us. The sense of touch is essential to everything that humans have called “work” for millions of years.

Now, take out your favorite Magical And Revolutionary Technology Device. Use it for a bit. What did you feel? Did it feel glassy? Did it have no connection whatsoever with the task you were performing?

I call this technology Pictures Under Glass. Pictures Under Glass sacrifice all the tactile richness of working with our hands, offering instead a hokey visual facade.

And that was written in 2011. We’ve not got any further.

The YouTube video he links to isn’t there anymore, but this one from Microsoft works just as well.

Futuristic authors, bored readers?

Whilst television seems to be rushing towards its future, can the same be said of books? In this essay for Wired, Craig Mod answers with a ‘yes, kinda’.

The ‘future book’ is here, but it’s not what we expected
In the 1990s, Future Bookism hit a kind of beautiful fever pitch. We were so close. Brown University professor Robert Coover, in a 1992 New York Times op-ed titled “The End of Books,” wrote of the future of writing: “Fluidity, contingency, indeterminacy, plurality, discontinuity are the hypertext buzzwords of the day, and they seem to be fast becoming principles, in the same way that relativity not so long ago displaced the falling apple.”

Things didn’t quite work out that way; Amazon swallowed up pretty much all the burgeoning e-book market, with Kindles that are “as interactive as a potato”.

Yet here’s the surprise: We were looking for the Future Book in the wrong place. It’s not the form, necessarily, that needed to evolve—I think we can agree that, in an age of infinite distraction, one of the strongest assets of a “book” as a book is its singular, sustained, distraction-free, blissfully immutable voice. Instead, technology changed everything that enables a book, fomenting a quiet revolution. Funding, printing, fulfillment, community-building—everything leading up to and supporting a book has shifted meaningfully, even if the containers haven’t. Perhaps the form and interactivity of what we consider a “standard book” will change in the future, as screens become as cheap and durable as paper. But the books made today, held in our hands, digital or print, are Future Books, unfuturistic and inert may they seem.

It’s an interesting take, for sure, but I can’t help but think this publishing revolution is marvellous for authors but, as a reader, I’m still pining for that promised interactivity. I don’t think it’s enough to say we’ve got Wikipedia and YouTube videos and e-mail newsletters and somehow we can bundle them all up and consider the resulting unstructured, messy, unvalidated heap a Future Book.

Tim Carmody responds to Craig’s essay with a call to pursue an older approach.

Towards the Future Book
I think the utopian moment for the future of the book ended not when Amazon routed its vendors and competitors, although the Obama DOJ deserves some blame in retrospect for handing them that win. I think it ended when the Google Books settlement died, leading to Google Books becoming, basically abandonware, when it was initially supposed to be the true Library of Babel.

For Tim, that goal — “the digitization of all printed matter, available for full-text search and full-image browsing on any device” — is where the future of the book should lie.

Will Self, meanwhile, is in a less positive mood.

The printed world in peril
As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

I’ve been a fan of his for many years now, his lack of optimism notwithstanding.

At the end of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the exiled hoboes return to the cities, which have been destroyed by the nuclear conflicts of the illiterate, bringing with them their head-borne texts, ready to restart civilization. And it’s this that seems to me the most prescient part of Bradbury’s menacing vision. For I see no future for the words printed on paper, or the art forms they enacted, if our civilization continues on this digital trajectory: there’s no way back to the future—especially not through the portal of a printed text.

Technology can’t stand still (unfortunately)

Using Proterozoic geology as his unusual starting point, MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito takes a look at the past, present and future of the web and cultural technology.

The next Great (Digital) Extinction
As our modern dinosaurs crash down around us, I sometimes wonder what kind of humans will eventually walk out of this epic transformation. Trump and the populism that’s rampaging around the world today, marked by xenophobia, racism, sexism, and rising inequality, is greatly amplified by the forces the GDE has unleashed. For someone like me who saw the power of connection build a vibrant, technologically meshed ecosystem distinguished by peace, love, and understanding, the polarization and hatred empowered by the internet today is like watching your baby turning into the little girl in The Exorcist.

And here’s a look into the technological future with analyst Benedict Evans.

The end of the beginning
The internet began as an open, ‘permissionless’, decentralized network, but then we got (and indeed needed) new centralised networks on top, and so we’ve spent a lot of the past decade talking about search and social. Machine learning and crypto give new and often decentralized, permissionless fundamental layers for looking at meaning, intent and preference, and for attaching value to those.

The End of the Beginning
What’s the state of not just “the world of tech”, but tech in the world? The access story is now coming to an end, observes Evans, but the use story is just beginning: Most of the people are now online, but most of the money is still not. If we think we’re in a period of disruption right now, how will the next big platform shifts — like machine learning — impact huge swathes of retail, manufacturing, marketing, fintech, healthcare, entertainment, and more?

Years ago and years away

I’m getting impatient for the future, it’s not coming quick enough.

Microsoft has been dreaming of a pocketable dual-screen Surface device for years
The Verge revealed last week that Microsoft wants to create a “new and disruptive” dual-screen device category to influence the overall Surface roadmap and blur the lines between what’s considered PC and mobile. Codenamed Andromeda, Microsoft’s project has been in development for at least two years and is designed to be a pocketable Surface device. Last week, Microsoft’s Surface chief, Panos Panay, appeared to tease just such a machine, built in collaboration with LG Display. We’re on the cusp of seeing the release of a folding, tablet-like device that Microsoft has actually been dreaming of for almost a decade.

That was earlier this month, but here’s something from 2015 — concepts from years ago and still years away.

Microsoft obsesses over giant displays and super thin tablets in future vision video
While everyone is busy flicking and swiping content from one device to another to get work done in the future, it’s nice to see there’s still a few keyboards laying around. Microsoft also shows off a concept tablet that’s shaped like a book, complete with a stylus. The tablet features a bendable display that folds out into a bigger device. If such a tablet will exist within the next 10 years then I want to pre-order one right now.

But consider this:

Imagining Windows 95 running on a smartphone
Microsoft released their Windows 95 operating system to the world in 1995. 4096 created an amusing video that imagines a mobile edition of Windows 95 running on a Microsoft-branded smartphone. Move over Cortana, Clippy is making a come back.

It’s all very amusing to think of such old technology in this new setting, but we’ll be laughing at how old-fashioned the iPhone X is soon enough, I’m sure.

The fabulous future of work awaits

Following on from that article about what it might be like to work until we’re 100, here’s another example of over-optimistic, blue-sky, work-based astrology, this time from Liselotte Lyngsø, a futurist from the Copenhagen-based consultancy Future Navigator.

This is what work will look like in 2100
Human potential, according to Lyngsø, is not best cultivated in today’s workplace structure, and many of the changes she predicts revolve around the ongoing effort to maximize the abilities of individuals. To that end, many of today’s workplace structures, such as the 9-to-5 workday, traditional offices, rigid hierarchies, and the very concept of retirement will change dramatically.

“I don’t think we’ll have work hours like we used to. Likewise I think we’ll replace retirement with breaks where we reorient and retrain, where the borders [of work] are blurred,” she says. “It’s also about creating a sustainable lifestyle so you don’t burn out, and you can keep working for longer.”

Oh great, thanks.

Can’t stop, won’t stop

I’ve mentioned before that, when it comes to our time here, we don’t get long. But perhaps our lives — and our working lives, especially — will be longer than we think.

What if we have to work until we’re 100?
Retirement is becoming more and more expensive – and future generations may have to abandon the idea altogether. So what kinds of jobs will we do when we’re old and grey? Will we be well enough to work? And will anyone want to employ us?

Books, future tense

Kindle v Glass, apps v text: the complicated future of books
It’s yet another way that our digital footprint is commercialised, marketed and analysed. Nothing is private anymore. Curling up on the couch with an e-book is not a solitary act but instead a way for corporations to learn about your habits and then sell you items you’ll think you need.

[…]

Despite it all, the book will survive and perhaps thrive, though our understanding of what a book can do and how it relates to the reader must change. Amazon remains a behemoth and yet a recent New Yorker feature on the company painted a picture of multinational disinterest in building a quality collection of books and literary culture (perhaps because they’re too busy selling garden tools, dildos and toys on their website).

15 technologies that were supposed to change education forever

“Every generation has its shiny new technology that’s supposed to change education forever. In the 1920s it was radio books. In the 1930s it was television lectures. Here in the second decade of the 21st century, it seems the Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) is the education tech of tomorrow. Let’s hope it pans out better than previous attempts.”

http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2014/01/15-technologies-that-were-supposed-to-change-education-forever/

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: The future will not be cool – Salon.com

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: The future will not be cool – Salon.com

“Tonight I will be meeting friends in a restaurant (tavernas have existed for at least 25 centuries). I will be walking there wearing shoes hardly different from those worn 5,300 years ago by the mummified man discovered in a glacier in the Austrian Alps. At the restaurant, I will be using silverware, a Mesopotamian technology, which qualifies as a “killer application” given what it allows me to do to the leg of lamb, such as tear it apart while sparing my fingers from burns. I will be drinking wine, a liquid that has been in use for at least six millennia. The wine will be poured into glasses, an innovation claimed by my Lebanese compatriots to come from their Phoenician ancestors, and if you disagree about the source, we can say that glass objects have been sold by them as trinkets for at least twenty-nine hundred years. After the main course, I will have a somewhat younger technology, artisanal cheese, paying higher prices for those that have not changed in their preparation for several centuries.”

Overseas students, FOI, productivity

  • BBC News – Colleges lose licences in immigration crackdown
    “More than 470 UK colleges have been barred in the last six months from accepting new foreign students from outside Europe, the Home Office says. They either had licences revoked or did not sign up to a new inspection system – part of government efforts to curb abuse of the immigration system. It estimates the colleges could have brought in 11,000 students.”
  • Universities UK response to Home Office update on student visa changes
    “Beyond the substance of these arrangements, it is essential that the government considers the way in which the rules are communicated externally. It’s important that the UK appears ‘open for business’ to those individuals who are genuinely committed to coming to the UK to study at one of our highly-regarded universities. We must also be conscious of the impact that cutting down on pre-degree courses is having on our universities. Many universities operate pathway programmes with a range of providers. It is estimated that more than 40 per cent of all international students arrive through this means.”
  • Tweets could now be considered valid FOI requests > JISC Legal
    “According to recent guidance published by the ICO, tweets addressed to an institution may constitute valid Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.”
  • What Kind of Worrier Are You? | World of Psychology
    “And this list actually made me feel better because, while I checked off the majority of them, I realized I still have plenty of things to worry about that I hadn’t even thought of! Score!”
  • Productivity Future Vision
    “In 5-10 years, how will people get things done at work, at home, and on the go. Watch the concept video to get a glimpse of the future of productivity, then explore the stories and technology in more detail.”
  • Take a More Realistic Approach to Your To-Do List with the 3 + 2 Rule
    “At the morning you think you can do a, b, c, d, e. But then something goes wrong with b and you spend much more time on it than you anticipated. Subsequently you can’t finish c and d and you feel like you haven’t done enough. Let it be. Instead of having unrealistic expectations, just acknowledge that you can do only 3 big things and 2 small things. Do them and call it a day!”

Future shock, adhocracy

  • “… Toffler argues that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a “super-industrial society”. This change will overwhelm people, the accelerated rate of technological and social change leaving them disconnected and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation” – future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems were symptoms of the future shock. In his discussion of the components of such shock, he also coined the term information overload…”
  • “… adhocracies will get more common and are likely to replace bureaucracy. … Downsides of adhocracies can include “half-baked actions”, personnel problems stemming from organization’s temporary nature, extremism in suggested or undertaken actions, and threats to democracy and legality rising from adhocracy’s often low-key profile.[5] To address those problems, researches in adhocracy suggest a model merging adhocracy and bureaucracy, the bureau-adhocracy.”