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kottke.org posts about technology

Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 06, 2018

In 1998, author and media critic Neil Postman gave a talk he called Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change. Here are the five ideas Postman shared that day, which are all still highly relevant today:

1. All technological change is a trade-off. For every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage.

2. The advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population. This means that every new technology benefits some and harms others.

3. Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three powerful ideas. Every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.

4. Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. The consequences of technological change are always vast, often unpredictable and largely irreversible.

5. Media tend to become mythic. Cars, planes, TV, movies, newspapers — they have achieved mythic status because they are perceived as gifts of nature, not as artifacts produced in a specific political and historical context.

His first idea about technology is perhaps the most apropos to the current moment:

The first idea is that all technological change is a trade-off. I like to call it a Faustian bargain. Technology giveth and technology taketh away. This means that for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. The disadvantage may exceed in importance the advantage, or the advantage may well be worth the cost. Now, this may seem to be a rather obvious idea, but you would be surprised at how many people believe that new technologies are unmixed blessings. You need only think of the enthusiasms with which most people approach their understanding of computers. Ask anyone who knows something about computers to talk about them, and you will find that they will, unabashedly and relentlessly, extol the wonders of computers. You will also find that in most cases they will completely neglect to mention any of the liabilities of computers. This is a dangerous imbalance, since the greater the wonders of a technology, the greater will be its negative consequences.

Think of the automobile, which for all of its obvious advantages, has poisoned our air, choked our cities, and degraded the beauty of our natural landscape. Or you might reflect on the paradox of medical technology which brings wondrous cures but is, at the same time, a demonstrable cause of certain diseases and disabilities, and has played a significant role in reducing the diagnostic skills of physicians. It is also well to recall that for all of the intellectual and social benefits provided by the printing press, its costs were equally monumental. The printing press gave the Western world prose, but it made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of communication. It gave us inductive science, but it reduced religious sensibility to a form of fanciful superstition. Printing gave us the modern conception of nationhood, but in so doing turned patriotism into a sordid if not lethal emotion. We might even say that the printing of the Bible in vernacular languages introduced the impression that God was an Englishman or a German or a Frenchman — that is to say, printing reduced God to the dimensions of a local potentate.

Perhaps the best way I can express this idea is to say that the question, “What will a new technology do?” is no more important than the question, “What will a new technology undo?” Indeed, the latter question is more important, precisely because it is asked so infrequently. One might say, then, that a sophisticated perspective on technological change includes one’s being skeptical of Utopian and Messianic visions drawn by those who have no sense of history or of the precarious balances on which culture depends. In fact, if it were up to me, I would forbid anyone from talking about the new information technologies unless the person can demonstrate that he or she knows something about the social and psychic effects of the alphabet, the mechanical clock, the printing press, and telegraphy. In other words, knows something about the costs of great technologies.

Idea Number One, then, is that culture always pays a price for technology.

It is nearly impossible to read these paragraphs and not think about how social media (and the internet more generally) has shaped our culture in both good and bad ways…and those who still believe that services like Facebook or Twitter are “unmixed blessings”. The rest of the talk is equally thought-provoking and enlightening.

P.S. Postman made these remarks about 2 weeks after I started publishing kottke.org 20 years ago. At that time, very few people I knew or interacted with online saw anything but the positive aspects of the internet and personal publishing online. Should we have seen the weaponization of the internet coming? Perhaps. But then again, not a lot of people who enjoyed the simple pleasures of Howdy Doody, I Love Lucy, and Lassie could have anticipated the government-shaping toxicity of Fox News and cable news in general.

A Japanese smartphone you can wash with soap and water

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 31, 2017

Smartphones have been getting more water-resistant for a while now, but this is pretty crazy. Via Ina Fried at Recode, who writes:

The phone is a successor to an earlier handset that worked only with certain types of hand soap. The washable phone can be used with a range of soaps, including foaming body wash and hand soap… Waterproof phones have long been a thing in Japan, so it’s not too much of a stretch to think there might be an appetite for soap-proof devices.

In the US, smartphones have gotten so ubiquitous as to be boring — all of them big, flat, and offering slightly different versions of the same thing. I don’t know — maybe that’s an unfair characterization. But I wish the market were just a little weirder, wilder, offering different things to different people with different needs and lives.

Wired in the 1990s

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 31, 2017

I used to work at Wired, and later at The Verge, and at both places we had a lot of reverence for “Wired in the 90s.” You’d say it fast like that, too — “wired-in-the-90s” — and it was a universally recognized shorthand for relevance, cool, slick design, smart writers, the “culture of now.” I suspect it probably stands for that for a lot of Kottke readers too.

Yesterday, for reasons unknown, my RSS reader spit up a random Kevin Kelly post from 2012 called “Predicting the Present” that excerpts a bunch of quotes from the early years of Wired. Here are some of them (I tried to pick fun ones):

We as a culture are deeply, hopelessly, insanely in love with gadgetry. And you can’t fight love and win.

Jaron Lanier, Wired 1.02, May/June 1993, p. 80

The idea of Apple making a $200 anything was ridiculous to me. Apple couldn’t make a $200 blank disk.

— Bill Atkinson, Wired 2.04, Apr 1994, p. 104

Marc Andreessen will tell you with a straight face that he expects Mosaic Communications’s Mosaic to become the world’s standard interface to electronic information.

— Gary Wolf, Wired 2.10, Oct 1994, p. 116

The human spirit is infinitely more complex than anything that we’re going to be able to create in the short run. And if we somehow did create it in the short run, it would mean that we aren’t so complex after all, and that we’ve all been tricking ourselves.

— Douglas Hofstadter, Wired 3.11, Nov 1995, p. 114

Of all the prospects raised by the evolution of digital culture, the most tantalizing is the possibility that technology could fuse with politics to create a more civil society.

— Jon Katz, Wired 5.04, Apr 1997

It is the arrogance of every age to believe that yesterday was calm.

— Tom Peters, Wired 5.12, Dec 1997

Separately, Ingrid Burrington was leafing through a 1996 issue of Wired and found this beauty:

AI-based investment systems will cut a swath through Wall Street, automating thousands of jobs or downgrading their skills.

— Clive Davidson, freely quoting Ron Liesching, Wired 4.12, Dec 1996

The Miracle on Google Street View

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 22, 2015

In the New Yorker, Matthew J.X. Malady writes about finding his deceased mother standing outside her house on Google Street View and, more generally, when technology clumsily reminds us of loved ones who are no longer with us.

When I reached my mother’s house, that all changed. First, I noticed that a gigantic American flag had been affixed to the mailbox post at the corner of the driveway. That was new. Then I spotted the fire pit in the front yard that my mom and her husband, my stepfather, used for block parties, and the grill on the patio, and my mom’s car. And then there she was, out front, walking on the path that leads from the driveway to the home’s front door. My mom.

At first I was convinced that it couldn’t be her, that I was just seeing things. When’s the last time you’ve spotted someone you know on Google Maps? I never had. And my mother, besides, is no longer alive. It couldn’t be her.

Facebook in particular has been dinged for inadvertent algorithmic cruelty, but they have recently been making strides in a better direction. (via @tcarmody)

Conversation clock

posted by Ainsley Drew   Apr 01, 2009

Karrie Karahalios created a program that interprets conversations and generates real-time visual feedback. A social mirror of sorts.

The “clock” shows the progress of the talk. Three times a second, a color bar pops up showing who was speaking. The louder the speech, the longer the bar. Interruptions are shown as overlapping color bars. Every minute, a new circle of bars is rendered in a visual record akin to the rings of tree trunk.

Referred to as a “conversation clock,” it’s already been tested with kids with low-functioning autism, teaching them to vocalize. One speech specialist thinks it can help kids with Asperger’s, who tend to dominate conversations, learn not to “monologue” so much.

Marriage counselors are also using it to teach your husband how to shut up for five minutes.

Chick click

posted by Ainsley Drew   Mar 31, 2009

I’m a classy roustabout, but I’m not sure I’d want to accessorize my computer with the pink-accented Swarovski Crystal mouse.

By manipulating the design of an item used everyday into a sensual, feminine form, we have created a personal gesture for the urban lifestyle of the working woman.

Kind of the opposite of the more organic, but equally impractical Mouse Mouse.

via design bloom

Giant fire-breathing robot

posted by Ainsley Drew   Mar 31, 2009

Sure, it looks like Astro Boy with heartburn, but Kenji Yanobe’s Giant Torayan is not the kind of toy you leave with just any kid.

This GIANT TORATAN doll is the ultimate child’s weapon, as it sings, dances, breathes fire, and follows only those orders given by children.

Masterminded at Nagoya Institute of Technology, its Command Device uses voice-recognition technology to differentiate between instructions given by adults versus those given by younger evil geniuses.

Half-dragon, half-Mary Poppins, all awesome.

“Thank You, Vocoder”

posted by Ainsley Drew   Mar 27, 2009

“Vocoders are an instantly recognizable synthesizer sound, having been used in popular music since the 1960s. They allow you to ‘talk like a robot’, which while fun, is often not musically useful.”

This from “Introduction to Vocoders,” proves the point that the vocoder does not, in fact, turn a song into music. The voice analyzer/synthesizer system that was originally developed in the 1930s to facilitate early telephony has now become a seemingly inescapable accessory to popular music.

Rapper Ice Cube also awkwardly reflected on the negative effects of vocoders on rap:

“Records sales really not concerned to me as much as doing it my way. And doing the kind of records I want to do. Without some A&R dude trying to tell me to go find T-Pain and get you a voice box. Ya know, all this stupid stuff that they do that mess up a lot of records, mess up a lot of artists.”

This clip of T-Pain v. His Vocoder is the audio equipment equivalent of Stephen King’s Christine, and it certainly backs up Mr. Cube’s claim.

Update: Turns out that the actual device Mr. Pain uses to alter his voice box is referred to as an Auto-Tune, and it’s the weapon of choice for Cher, Kanye, and T-Pain, who seems just as oblivious as this author was. The two machines are entirely different.

Thx jason freeman

Education in 140 characters or less

posted by Ainsley Drew   Mar 26, 2009

In response to a push for more tech literacy, British primary schools have proposed a new set of academic standards, including plans to study Twitter.

It seems to be going over fairly well with those at the head of the class. According to John Bangs, of the National Union of Teachers:

“Computer skills and keyboard skills seem to be as important as handwriting in this. Traditional books and written texts are downplayed in response to web-based learning.”

Let’s hope that history lectures don’t devolve into presentations on now-defunct MySpace pages and AOL screen-names.

via CNET

Speaking of memes, Susan Blackmore theorizes that

posted by Deron Bauman   Mar 04, 2008

Speaking of memes, Susan Blackmore theorizes that humans are just machines for propagating them.

Memes are using human brains as their copying machinery. So we need to understand the way human beings work.

&

Up until very recently in the world of memes, humans did all the varying and selecting. We had machines that copied — photocopiers, printing presses — but only very recently do we have artificial machines that also produce the variations, for example (software that) mixes up ideas and produces an essay or neural networks that produce new music and do the selecting. There are machines that will choose which music you listen to. It’s all shifting that way because evolution by natural selection is inevitable. There’s a shift to the machines doing all of that.

When asked what the future will look like, she says, “it will look like humans are just a minor thing on this planet with masses (of) silicon-based machinery using us to drag stuff out of the ground to build more machines.”

Good times.