Hanging on

Typewriters are still around, and thankfully so too are some of the typewriter repair shop.

This typewriter repairman was told computers were king. Twenty years later, he’s still in business
But Quezada’s admiration for the machine is clear. The Underwood and its kind “are like Mercedes, like Rolls Royces,” he said. They belong to an era before planned obsolescence, when people did not just replace, but repaired, what they owned.

Unlike the pager, the PDA, the floppy disk and the VCR, the typewriter has escaped the heap of gadgets defunct and disused. The reason, according to Steve Soboroff, president of the Los Angeles Police Commission and typewriter collector: Its slow pace is meditative, not frustrating, an exercise in deliberateness closer to engraving than typing on a computer.

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Business isn’t what it was, of course.

When Quezada left his Mexican home state of Chihuahua in 1987 to join his sister in San Gabriel, the shop she owned with her husband — an Italian immigrant who repaired typewriters as a boy in Salerno — had servicing contracts with school districts in San Gabriel, El Monte, Whittier and Alhambra.

In the summer, when students were gone and the schools wanted classrooms full of typewriters repaired, the shop had so much business it had to hire temporary workers, Quezada said.

“Around 1980, every little town had a shop that repaired and sold typewriters. A typewriter was expected to be serviced and repaired, and it was expected to last 20, 30 years.”

Quezada took over the shop in the mid-’90s. It wasn’t long before computers were supplanting the typewriter. Though he’s held on, business gets leaner every year, the new interest notwithstanding.

His door is still open at the moment, at least.

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International Office Machines

When Facebook’s troubles began

(Or rather, when our troubles with Facebook began.)

Things were very different in 2004.

15 moments that defined Facebook’s first 15 years
At that point, success meant having 250,000 users on the platform. In the decade and a half since, Facebook has added four zeroes to that figure, transforming from a website for poking your college crush to, arguably, the most powerful engine of communication in the world. Zuckerberg’s creation has, for better and for worse, forever changed how people connect, how businesses make money, how politicians seize power, and how information flows across communities and cultures. It’s where grannies share pictures of their grandkids and where state-sponsored trolls wage cyberwar against other countries. It’s how volunteers raise money for hurricane victims and how hate-mongers rally their followers to kill people.

I think this moment is the key one.

2. News Feed launches.
… But News Feed did more than alert users to the privacy risks inherent in all this sharing. It also began the process of consolidating a world of information into one, ceaseless scroll, personalized to every individual user’s interests and beliefs. The News Feed wrested control away from publishers, putting it in the hands of Facebook’s almighty algorithms.

Another take on that, from 2014.

How Facebook’s design has changed over the last 10 years
September 2006, a major development: Mini-Feed and News Feed debuted. These additions shook up the look of Facebook by shifting emphasis away from the profile and towards the actions people took on Facebook, moving the service from a directory to a feed. And people were not happy.

And this one, from 2013.

Facebook news feed changed everything
Looking back, it’s clear that news feed is one of the most important, influential innovations in the recent history of the Web. News feed forever altered our relationship to personal data, turning everything we do online into a little message for friends or the world to consume. You might not like this trend—or, at least, you might claim you don’t like this trend. But the stats prove you probably do. News feed is the basis for Facebook’s popularity, the thing that initially set it apart from every other social network, and the reason hundreds of millions of us go back to the site every day.

But news feed is bigger than that. Either directly or indirectly, it’s the inspiration for just about every social-media feature that has come along since. News feed paved the way for Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Flipboard, and Quora—for every site that thrives off of the communities created by lots of people’s individual contributions. News feed changed the media (it’s hard to imagine BuzzFeed without it), advertising, politics, and, to the extent that it altered how we all talk to one another, society itself.

Who would have thought, at the time, that all that would lead us here — fake news and post truth.

Facebook partners with Snopes and Associated Press to tackle fake news
The update will make it easier for users to report hoax stories and also bring in third-party fact checking to investigate and flag reported stories. Facebook will also be looking at how many people share articles after they’ve read them and combine this data with disputed flags to push fake stories to the bottom of news feeds. Fact-checkers at ABC News, FactCheck.org, the Associated Press, Snopes and Politifact will be using a tool created by Facebook to help evaluate the truthfulness of stories that have been flagged as fake news.

That turned out not to be so easy.

Snopes ends their ‘debunking false stuff’ partnership with Facebook. Here’s why.
“It doesn’t seem like we’re striving to make third-party fact checking more practical for publishers — it seems like we’re striving to make it easier for Facebook. At some point, we need to put our foot down and say, ‘No. You need to build an API,’” Green said. “The work that fact-checkers are doing doesn’t need to be just for Facebook — we can build things for fact-checkers that benefit the whole web, and that can also help Facebook.”

Sounds like it wasn’t just a ‘bandwidth’ issue, but more a commitment to open systems versus closed. Once again, the people behind Snopes.com have my respect.

And for some further background reading, try these from Roger McNamee, author of Zucked – Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe.

How to fix Facebook—before it fixes us
An early investor explains why the social media platform’s business model is such a threat—and what to do about it.

How Facebook and Google threaten public health – and democracy
The sad truth is that Facebook and Google have behaved irresponsibly in the pursuit of massive profits. And this has come at a cost to our health.

China’s fear of losing control

This isn’t quite the brave new world we were hoping these new technologies would enable.

Davos: George Soros calls Xi Jinping a “dangerous opponent” of open societies
Soros said he wanted to “call attention to the mortal danger facing open societies from the instruments of control that machine learning and artificial intelligence can put in the hands of repressive regimes.” Echoing recent concerns raised about China’s use of facial-recognition technology, Soros asked: “How can open societies be protected if these new technologies give authoritarian regimes a built-in advantage? That’s the question that preoccupies me. And it should also preoccupy all those who prefer to live in an open society.”

Tracing his critique of authoritarian governments to his own childhood under Nazi occupation in Hungary, Soros, who is now 88, urged the Trump administration to take a harder stance on China. “My present view is that instead of waging a trade war with practically the whole world, the US should focus on China,” he said

The complicated truth about China’s social credit system
What’s troubling is when those private systems link up to the government rankings — which is already happening with some pilots, she says. “You’ll have sort of memorandum of understanding like arrangements between the city and, say, Alibaba and Tencent about data exchanges and including that in assessments of citizens,” Ohlberg adds. That’s a lot of data being collected with little protection, and no algorithmic transparency about how it’s analysed to spit out a score or ranking[.]

[…]

The criteria that go into a social credit ranking depends on where you are, notes Ohlberg. “It’s according to which place you’re in, because they have their own catalogs,” she says. It can range from not paying fines when you’re deemed fully able to, misbehaving on a train, standing up a taxi, or driving through a red light. One city, Rongcheng, gives all residents 1,000 points to start. Authorities make deductions for bad behaviour like traffic violations, and add points for good behaviour such as donating to charity.

Running a red light is one thing, but what if you’re a journalist investigating corruption and misconduct?

Chinese blacklist an early glimpse of sweeping new social-credit control
What it meant for Mr. Liu is that when he tried to buy a plane ticket, the booking system refused his purchase, saying he was “not qualified.” Other restrictions soon became apparent: He has been barred from buying property, taking out a loan or travelling on the country’s top-tier trains.

“There was no file, no police warrant, no official advance notification. They just cut me off from the things I was once entitled to,” he said. “What’s really scary is there’s nothing you can do about it. You can report to no one. You are stuck in the middle of nowhere.”

In China, facial recognition tech is watching you
Megvii, meanwhile, supports the state’s nationwide surveillance program, which China, with troubling inferences, calls Skynet. Launched in 2005, Skynet aims to create a nationwide panopticon by blanketing the country with CCTV. Thanks to Face++, it now incorporates millions of A.I.-enhanced cameras that have been used to apprehend some 2,000 suspects since 2016, according to a Workers’ Daily report.

[…]

Jeffrey Ding, an Oxford University researcher focused on Chinese A.I., believes there is more pushback in the West against deploying facial recognition technology for security purposes. “There’s more willingness in China to adopt it,” he says, “or at least to trial it.”

But there’s also less freedom to oppose the onslaught. “The intention of these systems is to weave a tighter net of social control that makes it harder for people to plan action or push the government to reform,” explains Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The line from Soros about the danger from “the instruments of control that machine learning and artificial intelligence can put in the hands of repressive regimes” chimes with what I’m reading in James Bridle’s new book, New Dark Age.

May we live in interesting times.

IT in the dock

Things aren’t going well in the courts at the moment.

HMCTS suffers major IT issues
Significant IT issues at the HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) have caused chaos across the UK’s courts as users have been unable to connect to the network and use IT systems that require access to it.

The issues began last week and are mainly affecting devices trying to connect to the main Ministry of Justice (MoJ) network, which is used by the department as well as all its agencies and several arm’s-length bodies.

Law courts in chaos as IT meltdown disrupts thousands of cases
The communication failures, which started last week, are a significant embarrassment for the Ministry of Justice, which is investing £1.2bn in a high-profile programme promoting online hearings which aims to replace the legal profession’s traditional reliance on mountains of paperwork.

The IT breakdown meant that staff at the MoJ were unable to send emails, wireless connections went down, jurors could not be enrolled and barristers could not register for attendance payments. Courts were left unsure of when some defendants were due to appear and some court files could not be retrieved, leading to prosecutions being adjourned.

The Register had reported on this a few days before, when the problem seemed to be restricted to just their CJSM (Criminal Justice Secure eMail) system.

Lawyers’ secure email network goes down, firm says it’ll take 2 weeks to restore
For reasons that were not immediately clear, Egress Technologies, provider of CJSM, said in an emailed update to users seen by The Register that restoring CJSM would involve wiping their mailboxes for up to two weeks.

It’s now more serious than that.

Nationwide UK court IT failure farce ‘not the result of a cyber attack’ – Justice Ministry
The Ministry of Justice has said a data centre outage was responsible for the widespread collapse of the UK’s civil and criminal court IT infrastructure over the past days.

In a statement to Parliament today, justice minister Lucy Frazer pinned the fault on Atos and Microsoft, saying there had been an “infrastructure failure in our suppliers’ data centre”.

Here’s a report from 2016, highlighting the issues the department was facing…

Ministry of Justice IT systems are ‘fragile and precarious’, say MPs
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) must get to grips with its poor IT systems or risk “further demoralising essential staff”, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has warned. […]

“ICT systems in probation are inefficient, unreliable and hard to use,” the PAC said. “In a service that relies on successful joint working between multiple partners, it is essential that ICT supports, rather than frustrates, effective and efficient collaboration. This is far from the case for probation.”

… which led to the £1,000,000,000 plan to “transform courts with better use of technology”.

UK justice system set for ‘wholesale shift’ to digital
The reform programme foresees “a wholesale shift to accessing justice digitally” and flags up two “significant developments” that will affect the way courts and tribunals operate: “The first is our aim for all cases to be started online, whether or not they are scheduled for the traditional system or for online resolution. The second will be the completion of some cases entirely online, which will be much more convenient for everyone involved.”

How was that received? With not much confidence, it seems.

PAC doubts justice system transformation programme will be a success
Public Accounts Committee says it’s difficult to see how the government’s “extremely challenging” £1.2bn project to overhaul courts through use of technology “will ever work”.

I don’t know if that’s related to today’s IT breakdowns there, but it makes you wonder.

How much is too much?

Screentime, I mean.

I know I’ve asked this more than once or twice before, but the answer still seems to be ‘it depends’. Take this article, for example, on the trend for music concerts to impose a no phones rule. It sounds eminently sensible.

The simple joy of “No Phones Allowed”
The no-phones policy illuminated something about smartphone use that’s hard to see when it’s so ubiquitous: our phones drain the life out of a room. They give everyone a push-button way to completely disengage their mind from their surroundings, while their body remains in the room, only minimally aware of itself. Essentially, we all have a risk-free ripcord we can pull at the first pang of boredom or desire for novelty, and of course those pangs occur constantly.

Every time someone in a group of people deploys a screen, the whole group is affected. Each disengaged person in a crowd is like a little black hole, a dead zone for social energy, radiating a noticeable field of apathy towards the rest of the room and what’s happening there. […]

I imagine that in another decade or two we’ll look at 2010s-era device use something like we do now with cigarette smoking. I was born in 1980, and I remember smoking sections on planes, which is unthinkable today. I wonder if today’s kids will one day vaguely remember the brief, bizarre time when people didn’t think twice about lighting up a screen in the middle of a darkened concert hall.

Yes, but what about the children, I hear you cry. How much screen time should we let them have?

A philosophy professor argues kids should use more technology, not less
Kids aren’t losing themselves in their devices, but potentially finding themselves. What’s more, they’re doing exactly what generations of kids have long done: Immersing themselves in the toys and objects of the moment that reflect the society they inhabit, and which will help prepare them for the future.

Shapiro, an assistant professor of philosophy at Temple University and a respected thinker on education, childhood and technology, presents his case in the new book The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World.

Ok well never mind the philosophy professors, what do the real experts say?

Screen time not intrinsically bad for children, say doctors
Spending time looking at screens is not intrinsically bad for children’s health, say the UK’s leading children’s doctors, who are advising parents to focus on ensuring their children get enough sleep, exercise and family interaction rather than clamping down on phones and laptops.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has produced the first guidance for parents on how long children should spend on their laptops and phones, which throws the ball firmly back into the parents’ court.

Worry less about children’s screen use, parents told
It said there was no good evidence that time in front of a screen is “toxic” to health, as is sometimes claimed. The review of evidence found associations between higher screen use and obesity and depression. But the college looked at this and said it was not clear from the evidence if higher screen use was causing these problems or if people with these issues were more likely to spend more time on screens. […]

Dr Max Davie, officer for health promotion for the RCPCH, said phones, computers and tablets were a “great way to explore the world”, but parents were often made to feel that there was something “indefinably wrong” about them. He said: “We want to cut through that and say ‘actually if you’re doing OK and you’ve answered these questions of yourselves and you’re happy, get on and live your life and stop worrying’.

Stop worrying? That’s not a phrase you come across in the news very often.

Stop scaremongering about kids spending time on their phones
Still, the screen time scaremongering continues. Partly it’s the fault of scientists and journals, for doing and encouraging shoddy, shocking science; and partly it’s the media’s fault for overhyping weak and uncertain results. “It’s a lot easier,” says David Ellis, a psychologist at Lancaster who specialises in the psychological impacts of technology, “to get the press to cover something about how tech is having a bad effect, than something which says it’s having very little effect.” The RCPCH’s guidelines are a refreshing change.

So we need more research on the quality of the research?

Screens might be as bad for mental health as … potatoes
“Researchers will essentially torture the data until it gives them a statistically significant result that they can publish,” Przybylski says. (Not all researchers who report such results do so with the intention to deceive. But researchers are people; science as an institution may strive for objectivity, but scientists are nevertheless susceptible to biases that can blind them to their misuse of data.) “We wanted to move past this kind of statistical cherry-picking. So we decided to look for a data-driven method to collect the whole orchard, all at once.” […]

To put it in perspective, the researchers compared the link between technology use and adolescent well-being to that of other factors examined by the large-scale data sets. “Using technology is about as associated with well-being as eating potatoes,” Przybylski says. In other words: hardly at all. By the same logic, bullying had an effect size four times greater than screen use. Smoking cigarettes? 18 times. Conversely, getting enough sleep and eating breakfast were positively associated with adolescent well-being at a magnitude 44 and 30 times that of technology use, respectively.

The kids (who use tech) seem to be all right
“This is an incredibly important paper,” says Candice Odgers, a psychologist studying adolescent health and technology at the University of California, Irvine, who wasn’t involved in the research. “It provides a sophisticated set of analyses and is one of the most comprehensive and careful accountings of the associations between digital technologies and well-being to date. And the message from the paper is painstakingly clear: The size of the association documented across these studies is not sufficient or measurable enough to warrant the current levels of panic and fear around this issue.”

I know it’s not strictly screen time that us parents worry about, but will all this stop the scaremongering in the media about too much of it being bad for us and our children? I’ll certainly be glued to my phone, waiting to find out.

Endless and insurmountable to-do lists

A welcome corrective from Quartz to all those productivity articles I used to enjoy reading, always in search of the perfect to-do app or system, distracting myself with the business-of-work rather than getting on with the actual work itself.

The life-draining tedium of errands is even worse in this age of digital convenience
Technology promised to simplify our lives—but errands seem to overwhelm us now. Automation, “smart technologies,” and “virtual assistants” haven’t magically made tedious tasks easier, but rather replaced old steps with new ones. You don’t necessarily have to go places to get things done, but you do have to recall old passwords or reset new ones, deal with infuriating bots that take your calls but can’t answer questions, and manage a slew of accounts. And because we change jobs more often and lead increasingly hectic lives, we experience a kind of “errand paralysis”.

Can’t go back

2019! As everyone else is greeting the new year with positivity and optimism for the future, I’m taking the contrary position and sharing some rather backward-facing articles.

Jason Koebler at Vice reminiscences about his old Tripod homepage (I had one of those!), and wonders whether he should rejuvenate it.

We should replace Facebook with personal websites
There’s a subtext of the #deleteFacebook movement that has nothing to do with the company’s mishandling of personal data. It’s the idea that people who use Facebook are stupid, or shouldn’t have ever shared so much of their lives. But for people who came of age in the early 2000s, sharing our lives online is second nature, and largely came without consequences. There was no indication that something we’d been conditioned to do would be quickly weaponized against us.

Wired’s Jason Kehe takes a step back from his iPhone.

Going dumb: My year with a flip phone
I felt like a wholer person. My mind was reabsorbing previously offloaded information and creating new connections. I was thinking more and better. My focus was improving. I thought I was breaking through.

In the end, I was not.

(He chooses a Kyocera phone, though I think we can all agree this was the best phone of its time.)

Web designer Andy Clarke shares the techniques he would have used back in 1998 to lay out a website — frames, tables and spacer gifs. Remember them?

Designing your site like it’s 1998
The height and width of these “shims” or “spacers” is only 1px but they will stretch to any size without increasing their weight on the page. This makes them perfect for performant website development.

Of course, these days we’re certain we know a much better way of doing all this. And that’s his point.

Strange as it might seem looking back, in 1998 we were also certain our techniques and technologies were the best for the job. That’s why it’s dangerous to believe with absolute certainty that the frameworks and tools we increasingly rely on today—tools like Bootstrap, Bower, and Brunch, Grunt, Gulp, Node, Require, React, and Sass—will be any more relevant in the future than elements, frames, layout tables, and spacer images are today.

What will all this look like in the next 20 years?

Listening with your whole body

A fascinating report on the new wearable technology allowing deaf concert goers to experience music in a brand new way.

New wearable tech lets users listen to live music through their skin
Back in September, 200 music fans gathered at the Bunkhouse Saloon in downtown Las Vegas for a private live concert with a unique twist: several of the fans were deaf. The concert served as a beta test for new wearable technology that allows deaf and hearing users alike to experience musical vibrations through their skin for a true “surround body” experience. […]

People at the Vegas concert (both deaf and hearing) reported feeling like their bodies became the instrument and the music was being played through them. One woman likened the experience to “living inside the strings of a piano,” after experiencing the third (Presto agitato) movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata while wearing the kit.

Reading that reminded me of an incident when I was a university Deputy Registrar, helping to run the graduation ceremonies at York Minster, one of Europe’s largest cathedrals. Before the ceremony was due to start, I was outlining the proceedings to one of our deaf students and her supporter — showing her the stage and the route across the nave and so on — when she suddenly turned to me with a look of extreme anxiety and confusion.

The organ had started to play. She couldn’t hear it, but she could certainly feel it. It was like an earthquake, she said.

It’s currently being refurbished, so this year’s ceremonies had to make do with a digital organ.

The once-a-century refurbishment
York Minster’s Grand Organ is currently undergoing a major, £2m refurbishment, the first on this scale since 1903.

The instrument, which dates back to the early 1830s, is being removed – including nearly all of its 5,403 pipes – and will be taken to Durham for repair and refurbishment by organ specialists Harrison and Harrison.

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Over three weeks, a team of eight people from organ specialists Harrison and Harrison dismantled the instrument – including nearly all of its 5,403 pipes – and transported it to their workshop in Durham for cleaning and repair works to be carried out. The pipes range in length from the size of a pencil to 10m long and the instrument overall is one of the largest in the country, weighing approximately 20,000kg.

Stolen millions

More announcements of company data (our data) being stolen. The numbers involved each time are just incredible.

Hackers breach Quora.com and steal password data for 100 million users
Compromised information includes cryptographically protected passwords, full names, email addresses, data imported from linked networks, and a variety of non-public content and actions, including direct messages, answer requests and downvotes. […] In a post published late Monday afternoon, Quora officials said they discovered the unauthorized access on Friday. They have since hired a digital forensics and security firm to investigate and have also reported the breach to law enforcement officials.

Whenever these stories are reported, the articles often end with a little summary of other recent snafus. The one above ended with:

Quora’s post is only the latest disclosure of a major breach. On Friday, hotel chain Marriott International said a system breach allowed hackers to steal passport numbers, credit card data, and other details for 500 million customers. In September, Facebook reported an attack on its network allowed hackers to steal personal details for as many as 50 million users. The social network later lowered the number of accounts affected to about 30 million.

A post from The Register, about that massive Marriott breach, concluded with this reminder of previous losses.

Marriott’s Starwood hotels mega-hack: Half a BILLION guests’ deets exposed over 4 years
Few hacks of individual firm’s customer data have come close to the scale of this one. The Yahoo! breach in 2013 saw three billion email accounts breached, while Carphone Dixons, the UK electronics retail chain, managed to lose control of 5.9 million sets of payment card data. In the US, the US Government Office for Personnel Management (which handles sensitive files on millions of government workers) had the personal data of 21 million employees’ breached by hackers.

Down the Amazon storefront rabbit hole

The list of Things I Just Don’t Understand Anymore continues to grow. I’m familiar with shopping. I’m familiar with online shopping. But then again —

A business with no end
Recently, one of my students at Stanford told me a strange story. His parents, who live in Palo Alto, Calif., had been receiving mysterious packages at their house. The packages were all different shapes and sizes but each was addressed to “Returns Department, Valley Fountain LLC.”

I looked into it and found that a company called Valley Fountain LLC was indeed listed at his parents’ address. But it also appeared to be listed at 235 Montgomery Street, Suite 350, in downtown San Francisco.

So were 140 other LLCs, most of which were registered in 2015.

And so begins another incredible journey down the e-commerce internet rabbit hole with Jenny Odell, as she tries to untangle the mess of connections between an evangelical church university, many spurious, scammy Amazon storefronts, and an American weekly news magazine.

Indeed, at some point I began to feel like I was in a dream. Or that I was half-awake, unable to distinguish the virtual from the real, the local from the global, a product from a Photoshop image, the sincere from the insincere.

I’ve highlighted Jenny Odell’s journalism here before, and this piece is just as fascinating. It’s being discussed on the Amazon Seller forums, with legitimate sellers worrying how they can possibly compete with fraudulent dropshipping at such a big scale.

A Business with No End — Much explained about shady Amazon sellers
The vast international illegal operation employs hundreds of fake companies, fake churches, fake bookstores, fake department stores that may or may not exist, fake brands, fake HB1 visas, fake reviews, a fake university in California full of “students” on student visas who write click-bait and fake reviews, and even a fake psychiatric hospital. Oh, and apparently a lot of shady fake Amazon sellers. Not confined to Amazon, the empire also involves multiple click-bait farms and fake review farms, and even Newsweek magazine. All part of a vast hidden empire run by a man named Park.

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?

Two contrasting technologies

Here are two technologies or tools that couldn’t be more different.

One started out around 1560 or 1795, has no moving parts, needs no manual and is still being sold in their billions…

A sharp look at the surprisingly complex process of pencil manufacturing by photographer Christopher Payne
The photographer, renowned for his cinematic images that show the architectural grace of manufacturing spaces, shares that he has held a lifelong fascination with design, assembly, and industrial processes. “The pencil is so simple and ubiquitous that we take it for granted,” Payne tells Colossal. “But making one is a surprisingly complex process, and when I saw all the steps involved, many of which are done by hand, I knew it would make for a compelling visual narrative.”

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…although for how much longer.

Children struggle to hold pencils due to too much tech, doctors say
His mother, Laura, blames herself: “In retrospect, I see that I gave Patrick technology to play with, to the virtual exclusion of the more traditional toys. When he got to school, they contacted me with their concerns: he was gripping his pencil like cavemen held sticks. He just couldn’t hold it in any other way and so couldn’t learn to write because he couldn’t move the pencil with any accuracy.”

The other, a highly complicated technological marvel that spread across the globe, revolutionising society, only to completely disappear within 30 years

VHS tapes
People have been able to consume their choice of music at home for more than a century, but it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that video was truly freed from the constraints of the multiplex and the network broadcast schedule—and not until the 1980s that it really became accessible. That heyday didn’t last long. Just three decades separated the first VHS-format VCR from the last Hollywood hit distributed on video tape. But in that time, a lot of memories were created, and a new template for consuming media was forged.

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… though fans remain.

From ignored ubiquity to design classic: the art of the blank VHS tape
When the company he worked at acquired a commercial printer with a scan bed on top, Jones began to scan tapes. Looking around on Google, he saw hardly any high-resolution images of these little pieces of everyday ephemera. There were plenty of horror and VHS box art scans, “but no love for the lowly home recording tape box that had been part of so many homes and families.” From this realization, the Vault Of VHS was born, a blog dedicated to the design of retail VHS packaging for both home and pre-recorded tapes.

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“The font, art, and tape dirt grey just feel like the gummy carpet of a grimy porn theater.”

A little robot round-up

I don’t know about you, but I find things to do with AI, robots and automation quite confusing. Will the impact of these technologies really be as widespread as envisaged by the futurists? And what will the consequences and implications really be? Is humanity at stake, even?

Here are a number of articles I’m working through, that will hopefully shed some light on it all. Let’s start with the robot uprising.

Social robots will become family members in the homes of the future
With fewer stay-at-home parents, social robots can serve as personalized practice partners to help with homework and reinforce what children have learned that day in school. Far beyond helping you find recipes and ordering groceries, they can be your personal sous-chef or even help you learn to cook. They can also act as personal health coaches to supplement nutrition and wellness programs recommended by doctors and specialists for an increasingly health-conscious population. As the number of aging-in-place boomers soars, social robots can provide a sense of companionship for retirees while also connecting seniors to the world and to their loved ones, as well as sending doctor-appointment and medication reminders.

Robots! A fantastic catalog of new species
IEEE Spectrum editor Erico Guizzo and colleagues have blown out their original Robots app into a fantastic catalog of 200 of today’s fantastic species of robots. They’re cleverly organized into fun categories like “Robots You Can Hug,” “Robots That Can Dance,” “Space Robots,” and “Factory Workers.” If they keep it updated, it’ll be very helpful for the robot uprising.

We need to have a very serious chat about Pepper’s pointless parliamentary pantomime
Had the Committee summoned a robotic arm, or a burger-flipping frame they would have wound up with a worse PR stunt but a better idea of the dangers and opportunities of the robot revolution.

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Robots can look very cute, but it’s the implications of those faceless boxes housing the AIs that will be more important, I think.

Computer says no: why making AIs fair, accountable and transparent is crucial
Most AIs are made by private companies who do not let outsiders see how they work. Moreover, many AIs employ such complex neural networks that even their designers cannot explain how they arrive at answers. The decisions are delivered from a “black box” and must essentially be taken on trust. That may not matter if the AI is recommending the next series of Game of Thrones. But the stakes are higher if the AI is driving a car, diagnosing illness, or holding sway over a person’s job or prison sentence.

Last month, the AI Now Institute at New York University, which researches the social impact of AI, urged public agencies responsible for criminal justice, healthcare, welfare and education, to ban black box AIs because their decisions cannot be explained.

Artificial intelligence has got some explaining to do
Most simply put, Explainable AI (also referred to as XAI) are artificial intelligence systems whose actions humans can understand. Historically, the most common approach to AI is the “black box” line of thinking: human input goes in, AI-made action comes out, and what happens in between can be studied, but never totally or accurately explained. Explainable AI might not be necessary for, say, understanding why Netflix or Amazon recommended that movie or that desk organizer for you (personally interesting, sure, but not necessary). But when it comes to deciphering answers about AI in fields like health care, personal finances, or the justice system, it becomes more important to understand an algorithm’s actions.

The only way is ethics.

Why teach drone pilots about ethics when it’s robots that will kill us?
For the most part, armies are keen to maintain that there will always be humans in charge when lethal decisions are taken. This is only partly window dressing. One automated system is dangerous only to its enemies; two are dangerous to each other, and out of anyone’s control. We have seen what happens on stock markets when automatic trading programs fall into a destructive pattern and cause “flash crashes”. In October 2016 the pound lost 6% of its value, with blame in part put down to algorithmic trading. If two hi-tech armies were in a standoff where hair-trigger algorithms faced each other on both sides, the potential for disaster might seem unlimited.

Nuclear war has been averted on at least one occasion by a heroic Russian officer overriding the judgment of computers that there was an incoming missile attack from the US. But he had 25 minutes to decide. Battlefield time is measured in seconds.

The Pentagon’s plans to program soldiers’ brains
DARPA has dreamed for decades of merging human beings and machines. Some years ago, when the prospect of mind-controlled weapons became a public-relations liability for the agency, officials resorted to characteristic ingenuity. They recast the stated purpose of their neurotechnology research to focus ostensibly on the narrow goal of healing injury and curing illness. The work wasn’t about weaponry or warfare, agency officials claimed. It was about therapy and health care. Who could object?

Let’s hope nothing goes wrong.

Machine learning confronts the elephant in the room
Then the researchers introduced something incongruous into the scene: an image of an elephant in semiprofile. The neural network started getting its pixels crossed. In some trials, the elephant led the neural network to misidentify the chair as a couch. In others, the system overlooked objects, like a row of books, that it had correctly detected in earlier trials. These errors occurred even when the elephant was far from the mistaken objects.

Snafus like those extrapolate in unsettling ways to autonomous driving. A computer can’t drive a car if it might go blind to a pedestrian just because a second earlier it passed a turkey on the side of the road.

So yes, things can go wrong. But AI and automation will all be good for jobs, right?

Artificial intelligence to create 58 million new jobs by 2022, says report
Machines and algorithms in the workplace are expected to create 133 million new roles, but cause 75 million jobs to be displaced by 2022 according to a new report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) called “The Future of Jobs 2018.” This means that the growth of artificial intelligence could create 58 million net new jobs in the next few years.

With this net positive job growth, there is expected to be a major shift in quality, location and permanency for the new roles. And companies are expected to expand the use of contractors doing specialized work and utilize remote staffing.

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AI may not be bad news for workers
Some jobs could be made a lot easier by AI. One example is lorry-driving. Some fear that truck drivers will be replaced by autonomous vehicles. But manoeuvring a lorry around busy streets is far harder than driving down the motorway. So the driver could switch into automatic mode (and get some rest) when outside the big cities, and take over the wheel once again when nearing the destination. The obvious analogy is with jetliners, where the pilots handle take-off and landing but turn on the computer to cruise at 35,000 feet. Using AI may prevent tired drivers from causing accidents.

Ok, yes, I can see that. But then it goes on…

And the report argues that AI can produce better decision-making by offering a contrarian opinion so that teams can avoid the danger of groupthink. A program could analyse e-mails and meeting transcripts and issue alerts when potentially false assumptions are being made (rather like the boy in the Hans Christian Andersen tale who notices that the Emperor has no clothes). Or it can warn a team when it is getting distracted from the task in hand.

Really? That’s quite a jump from automated driving. Having a system read everything a company’s employees write to look for poor assumptions? I cannot see that happening. More over-selling.

But what else could AI do?

AI lie detector tests to get trial run at EU airports
Fliers will be asked a series of travel-related questions by a virtual border guard avatar, and artificial intelligence will monitor their faces to assess whether they are lying. The avatar will become “more skeptical” and change its tone of voice if it believes a person has lied, before referring suspect passengers to a human guard and allowing those believed to be honest to pass through, said Keeley Crockett of Manchester Metropolitan University in England, who was involved in the project.

AI anchors: Xinhua debuts digital doppelgangers for their journalists
The AI-powered news anchors, according to the outlet, will improve television reporting and be used to generate videos, especially for breaking news on its digital and social media platforms.

“I’m an English artificial intelligence anchor,” Zhang’s digital doppelganger said in introduction during his first news telecast, blinking his eyes and raising his eyebrows throughout the video. “This is my very first day in Xinhua News Agency … I will work tirelessly to keep you informed, as texts will be typed into my system uninterrupted.”

 

This is what the world’s first AI newsreader looks and sounds like [via the Guardian]

But let’s not get too carried away here. We’re talking about people’s jobs, their livelihoods.

The automation charade
Since the dawn of market society, owners and bosses have revelled in telling workers they were replaceable. Robots lend this centuries-old dynamic a troubling new twist: employers threaten employees with the specter of machine competition, shirking responsibility for their avaricious disposition through opportunistic appeals to tech determinism. A “jobless future” is inevitable, we are told, an irresistible outgrowth of innovation, the livelihood-devouring price of progress. …

Though automation is presented as a neutral process, the straightforward consequence of technological progress, one needn’t look that closely to see that this is hardly the case. Automation is both a reality and an ideology, and thus also a weapon wielded against poor and working people who have the audacity to demand better treatment, or just the right to subsist.

That article goes on to introduce a new term to describe the overselling the workplace dynamic and the casualisation of low-skilled service work, “fauxtomation.”

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But maybe we should all loosen up, and stop being so serious.

Love in the time of AI: meet the people falling for scripted robots
“Obviously as the technology gets better and the interactivity increases we’re going to be able to form closer connections to characters in games,” Reed said. “They will operate with greater flexibility and ultimately seem more lifelike and easier to connect to.”

But for Wild Rose and many of the other dating sims enthusiasts I spoke to, making the characters more “human” wasn’t particularly exciting or even desired. Saeran didn’t need to be real for her to care about him.

The HAL 9000 Christmas ornament
Fans of “2001: A Space Odyssey” will want to bring home this special Christmas ornament that celebrates 50 years of the science-fiction masterpiece. Press the button to see the ornament light up as HAL says several memorable phrases.

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Are we doing the right thing?

As a parent of teenagers, I worry about this topic a lot.

What do we actually know about the risks of screen time and digital media?
The lumping of everything digital into a monolith is a framing that makes Oxford Internet Institute psychologist Andrew Przybylski groan. “We don’t talk about food time,” he points out. “We don’t talk about paper time. But we do talk about screen time.” […]

The new series of papers includes a look at childhood screen use and ADHD, the effects of media multitasking on attention, and the link between violent video games and aggression. The separate papers are a good reminder that these are really separate issues; even if screen time ends up being problematic in one area, it doesn’t mean it can’t have a positive effect in another.

Nothing’s ever straightfoward, is it? Like its conclusion, for instance.

So, is digital media a concern for developing minds? There’s no simple answer, in part because the uses of media are too varied for the question to really be coherent. And, while some research results seem robust, the catalogue of open questions is dizzying. Answering some of those questions needs not just a leap in research quality, but, argues Przybylski, a reframing of the question away from the way we think about tobacco and toward the way we think about information: “What are the most effective strategies parents can employ to empower young people to be proactive and critical users of technology?”

Others have firmly made up their minds, however.

A dark consensus about screens and kids begins to emerge in Silicon Valley
For longtime tech leaders, watching how the tools they built affect their children has felt like a reckoning on their life and work. Among those is Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now the chief executive of a robotics and drone company. He is also the founder of GeekDad.com. “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine,” Mr. Anderson said of screens.

Technologists building these products and writers observing the tech revolution were naïve, he said. “We thought we could control it,” Mr. Anderson said. “And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.”

Art and AI #3

A very interesting follow-up to that story about the first artwork by an AI to be auctioned. It seems the humans behind the AI, Hugo Caselles-Dupré and the Obvious team, have had to face some considerable criticism.

The AI art at Christie’s is not what you think
Hugo Caselles-Dupré, the technical lead at Obvious, shared with me: “I’ve got to be honest with you, we have totally lost control of how the press talks about us. We are in the middle of a storm and lots of false information is released with our name on it. In fact, we are really depressed about it, because we saw that the whole community of AI art now hates us because of that. At the beginning, we just wanted to create this fun project because we love machine learning.” […]

Early on Obvious made the claim that “creativity isn’t only for humans,” implying that the machine is autonomously creating their artwork. While many articles have run with this storyline, one even crediting robots, it is not what most AI artists and AI experts in general believe to be true. Most would say that AI is augmenting artists at the moment and the description in the news is greatly exaggerated. […]

In fact, when pressed, Hugo admitted to me in our interview that this was just “clumsy communication” they made in the beginning when they didn’t think anyone was actually paying attention. […]

As we saw with Salvator Mundi last year and with the Banksy last week, the most prestigious auction houses, like museums, have the ability to elevate art and increase its value by putting it into the spotlight, shaping not only the narrative of the work, but also the narrative of art history.

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So, farewell then, GeoCities. Again

Ten years after it shut down for the rest of us, Yahoo Japan has finally pulled the plug on its GeoCities service.

Yahoo Japan is shutting down its website hosting service GeoCities
The company said in a statement that it was hard to encapsulate in one word the reason for the shut down, but that profitability and technological issues were primary factors. It added that it was full of “regret” for the fate of the immense amount of information that would be lost as a result of the service’s closure. […]

The fact that GeoCities survived in Japan for so long speaks to the country’s idiosyncratic nature online. Despite the fact that Yahoo—which purchased GeoCities in 1999 for almost $4 billion at the peak of the dot.com boom—has fallen into irrelevance in much of the world, the company continues to be the dominant news portal in Japan. It still commands a sizeable market share in search, though it has steadily ceded its position to Google over the years.

So it goes.

Art and AI #2

More about computer science’s latest foray into the art world.

The first piece of AI-generated art to come to auction
As part of the ongoing dialogue over AI and art, Christie’s will become the first auction house to offer a work of art created by an algorithm.

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The portrait in its gilt frame depicts a portly gentleman, possibly French and — to judge by his dark frockcoat and plain white collar — a man of the church. The work appears unfinished: the facial features are somewhat indistinct and there are blank areas of canvas. Oddly, the whole composition is displaced slightly to the north-west. A label on the wall states that the sitter is a man named Edmond Belamy, but the giveaway clue as to the origins of the work is the artist’s signature at the bottom right. In cursive Gallic script it reads:

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This portrait, however, is not the product of a human mind. It was created by an artificial intelligence, an algorithm defined by that algebraic formula with its many parentheses.

It’s certainly a very interesting image — it reminds me a little of Francis Bacon’s popes — but the pedant in me would rather they stick with “created by an algorithm”, rather than generated by an artificial intelligence. We’re not there yet. It was the “product of a human mind”, albeit indirectly. Take that signature, for example. I refuse to believe that this artificial intelligence decided for itself to sign its work that way. Declaring the AI to be the artist, as opposed to the medium, is like saying Excel is the artist in this case:

Tatsuo Horiuchi, the 73-year old Excel spreadsheet artist
“I never used Excel at work but I saw other people making pretty graphs and thought, ‘I could probably draw with that,’” says 73-year old Tatsuo Horiuchi. About 13 years ago, shortly before retiring, Horiuchi decide he needed a new challenge in his life. So he bought a computer and began experimenting with Excel. “Graphics software is expensive but Excel comes pre-installed in most computers,” explained Horiuchi. “And it has more functions and is easier to use than [Microsoft] Paint.”

Those are amazing paintings, by the way. Colossal has more, as well as a link to an interview with Tatsuo. But anyway, here’s some more AI art.

This AI is bad at drawing but will try anyways
This bird is less, um, recognizable. When the GAN has to draw *anything* I ask for, there’s just too much to keep track of – the problem’s too broad, and the algorithm spreads itself too thin. It doesn’t just have trouble with birds. A GAN that’s been trained just on celebrity faces will tend to produce photorealistic portraits. But this one, however…

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In fact, it does a horrifying job with humans because it can never quite seem to get the number of orifices correct.

But it seems the human artists can still surprise us, so all’s well.

Holed up: man falls into art installation of 8ft hole painted black
If there were any doubt at all that Anish Kapoor’s work Descent into Limbo is a big hole with a 2.5-metre drop, and not a black circle painted on the floor, then it has been settled. An unnamed Italian man has discovered to his cost that the work is definitely a hole after apparently falling in it.

Nigel Farage’s £25,000 portrait failed to attract a single bid at prestigious art show
The former Ukip leader has been a dealt a blow after the work, by painter David Griffiths, raised no interest at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition in London.

Are you reading this properly?

Yes, I read my e-mail on my phone. And yes, I read the news on my tablet, where I found these two cheery articles from the Guardian.

Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound
The possibility that critical analysis, empathy and other deep reading processes could become the unintended “collateral damage” of our digital culture is not a simple binary issue about print vs digital reading. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read. Nor is it only about the young. The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.

Alan Rusbridger: who broke the news?
If journalists cannot agree on a common idea of the public interest – of the public service we claim to be providing – then it complicates the defence of what we do. And in an age of horizontal free mass media, it is even more important for us to be able to define and declare our values, our purpose – and our independence. Which includes independence from the state.

But five years after the Snowden revelations, it is now apparent that states themselves are struggling with the digital disruption that first tore through the established media and has now reshaped politics. The digital giants have not only unleashed information chaos – they have, in the blink of an eye, become arguably the most powerful organisations the world has ever seen.

Update 04/09/2018: I’ve just found another article on a similar theme that I’ll tack on to the end of this post, about watching less and reading more.

Why everyone should watch less news
While research has shown that visually shocking and upsetting news can contribute to anxiety, sleeping trouble, raise cortisol levels and even trigger PTSD symptoms, a University of Sussex study found that just six minutes reading a book can reduce stress levels up to 68%. A study done by former journalist turned positive psychology researcher Michelle Geilan found that watching just a few minutes of negative news in the morning increases the chances of viewers reporting having had a bad day by 27%, while Barnes and Noble just reported soaring sales for books that help people deal with anxiety and find happiness. Life Time Fitness, a gym chain with locations in 27 states, recently decided that tuning their TVs to FOX News and CNN was antithetical to their mission of making people healthier, so they’ve banned the news from the gym.

Too much screen time, or too many screens?

New research has been published on how teenagers and parents feel about the amount of time they’re on their devices.

How teens and parents navigate screen time and device distractions
Amid roiling debates about the impact of screen time on teenagers, roughly half of those ages 13 to 17 are themselves worried they spend too much time on their cellphones. Some 52% of U.S. teens report taking steps to cut back on their mobile phone use, and similar shares have tried to limit their use of social media (57%) or video games (58%), a new Pew Research Center survey finds. […]

Parents, too, are anxious about the effects of screen time on their children, a separate survey shows. Roughly two-thirds of parents say they are concerned about their teen spending too much time in front of screens, and 57% report setting screen time restrictions for their teen in one way or another.

It’s not just a problem for the teenagers, though.

At the same time, some parents of teens admit they also struggle with the allure of screens: 36% say they themselves spend too much time on their cellphone. And 51% of teens say they often or sometimes find their parent or caregiver to be distracted by their own cellphone when they are trying to have a conversation with them.

Additionally, 15% of parents say they often lose focus at work because they are distracted by their phone. That is nearly double the share of teens (8%) who say they often lose focus in school due to their own cellphones.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this.

How the shared family computer protected us from our worst selves
Long before phone addiction panic gripped the masses and before screen time became a facet of our wellness and digital detoxes, there was one good and wise piece of technology that served our families. Maybe it was in the family room or in the kitchen. It could have been a Mac or PC. Chances are it had a totally mesmerizing screensaver. It was the shared family desktop.

A very interesting account of what it was like to be a child in the 90s, when all this first started.

At the time, bringing a single computer into the home was a harbinger of progress that many didn’t feel ready for. Thirty years later, the idea of having only one shared device with internet access might as well be primordial. How did that work, exactly? Well, it wasn’t completely without its challenges. Mapping out uninterrupted computer time was maddeningly tricky, and privacy was basically nonexistent. You risked parental fury if a virus shut the computer down because of a visit to a risky site. Space on the hard drive was at a premium, and the computer chair was inevitably among the most uncomfortable seats in the house. Having such a valuable resource with finite availability and keeping it in a communal space required cooperation and compromise from everyone involved.

As much as we might like, we can’t go back to those times. Though there are signs that things might change.

Logged off: meet the teens who refuse to use social media
But when you are from a digitally native generation, quitting social media can feel like joining a monastery. Amanuel was recently asked by co-workers if she had Snapchat. “I said no,” Amanuel remembers, “and I instantly heard, like, gasps. It was like I’d revealed something disgusting.” She explained that she did have a Snapchat handle, but never used it. “Relief came out of their eyes! It was really weird.”