torsdag 26 mars 2015

Why Apple Watch is a terrible idea

I sometimes watch Apple keynotes to keep up with the world of Apple. Owning a stationary iMac, a MacBook laptop, an iPad and an iPhone 5, I have both a curiosity and a vested interest in keeping an eye on what Apple does. I therefore recently watched the two hours long video from the September 2014 Apple Event where Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled the upcoming Apple Watch. Cook spent no less than 45 minutes talking about the watch. Apple Watch will be released at the end of April and prices will range from $349 to $17.000 USD (depending on materials). As this is a new product category, sales for 2015 are estimated to land anywhere between 8 and 60 million, which is still is a huge leap compared to the less than 3.5 million (non-Apple) smartwatches that were sold during 2014. As a comparison, Apple sold almost 15 million iPads in the first nine months after it was released in April 2010. It is of course impossible to yet know if Apple Watch will become a success or if smartwatches will continue to struggle in the marketplace. While Apple Watch most certainly represents a new technological feat from Apple, I still think Apple Watch is a terrible idea and I will tell you why.

Early in Cook's presentation, I became hesitant when I understood that the watch requires the owner to have an iPhone from the latest or the second-to-latest generation (iPhone 5 or 6). The iPhone 5 was released two and a half years ago, in September 2012, but you might need to upgrade the operating system of your iPhone for it to work together with the Apple Watch. While a lot of Apple Watch-compatible iPhones have been sold (200 million back in September according to Cook but estimated to be closer to 300 million by the end of 2015), only a limited portion of humanity - iPhone owners - will fulfil the prerequisites of buying the Apple Watch. That might not be a problem for Apple since iPhone users of course are part of an affluent global elite with money to burn. Already in 2010, with a market share of barely 4% of all cellphones sold, Apple "pulled in more than 50% of the total profits that global cellphone sales [generated]". I do however find it slightly disturbing to design a new product (a watch) that can be used only by a small subsection of all the people who can own an ordinary watch. It's as if you design a TV that can only be used with loudspeakers from a specific company or iPod loudspeakers that work fine, but becomes obsolete when the physical interface of future iPods changes (which happened to me). I find it slightly offensive when dependencies and limitations are erected between consumer products that previously did not have any.

This led me to have a second look at a really interesting article I read a few years ago in (of all places) the Australian Defence Force Journal. Major Cameron Leckie wrote an article called "Lasers or Longbows? A Paradox of Military Technology" where he compares high-tech but fragile military technologies (lasers, jet fighters) with low-tech but robust military technologies (longbows, spears). His basic argument is that while a jet fighter in the air is immensely more powerful than spear-wielding aborigines, the jet fighter is also a more vulnerable and less robust technology. A functioning jet fighter is dependent on modern fuels (and the long infrastructural chain behind the production and transportation of jet fuel), on complex financial arrangements and government debts, and, on modern communications and oodles of data, together resulting in "a highly-complex, globally interconnected and interdependent supply chain". Increased military capability thus correlates with increased complexity, but, erecting and maintaining complexity always comes at a significant cost. That cost is spelled increased vulnerability since every part has to work exactly as planned while there at the same time are a near-infinite number of possible points where the system can fail. This is the paradox of military technology; with increased capabilities comes increased complexity, increased costs and increased vulnerabilities.

While spears are pitiful weapons next to a modern tank, a spear could be produced "in situ" with very limited resources (some timber, stone and resin) and the appropriate know-how (no industrial base required!). By comparison, "the best tank in the world is useless without trained crews, sufficient fuel and ammunition, and areas in which to train, supported by a sound maintenance system, all of which are dependent on the allocation of appropriate financial resources".

Leckie's point is that sometimes the appropriate response can be to decrease complexity rather than to increase it (military precedents are mentioned in the article). Leckie argues that for a country like Australia that imports 80 per cent of its transport fuels, it is important to find a balance between capabilities and costs. It is more important for the Australian military to think about cost-effective (e.g. simple) ways to maintain relative levels of capability (in relation to neighbouring countries and possible future threats), rather than aiming for the highest absolute levels of military capability (having the best jet fighters in the world).

My problem with the Apple Watch then is that it increases the complexity and the vulnerability of an emerging ecosystem of personal intimate (wearable) technologies that you are supposed to carry with you all day. With increased complexity comes increasing costs of maintaining such an ecosystem and an increasing number of points where things can go wrong. Increasingly complex systems also lead to the possibility of cascading failures taking down the whole tightly coupled system - something that can't happen in systems with more robust, independent components. Thomas Homer-Dixon, in "The upside of down" discusses characteristics of complex systems:

"machines like windup clocks or car engines aren't complex. They may be extremely complicated - they may have thousands of parts - but all their parts work together to produce a system with a relatively narrow and predictable range of behaviors. ... Complex systems, on the other hand, have properties and behaviors that can't be attributed to any particular part but only to the system as a whole. ... Sometimes, for instance, small changes in a complex system produce huge effects, while large changes make little difference at all. In other words, cause and effect aren't proportional to each other. ... The behavior of a complex system with these features is highly contingent - how it behaves at any given time, and how it evolves over time, depends on a host of factors, large and small, knowable and unknowable."

While the Apple Watch surely is a feat in terms of precision, engineering, materials, style, capabilities, breakthroughs in ways of interacting with a very small display etc., I feel that the watch is problematic from a sustainability point of view. In terms of ecological sustainability, I assume Apple will use the highest standards in terms of materials and manufacturing processes (e.g. what Apple refers to as "environmental responsibility"). That should not detract from the fact that the paring of the Apple Watch to Apple's iPhones means that at some point in the future, your watch's software requirements (etc.) may force you to buy a new iPhone or vice versa. The hardware-software obsolescence cycle, where new software requires new-ish hardware and vice versa - just sped up. Instead of designing technologies that can be used for a long time, Apple has designed a technology that will speed up the obsolescence of co-dependent gadgets and increase your "need" to constantly buy new high-tech gadgets. Do note that the top-of the line $17.000 Apple Watches are made of hardened 18-karat gold. It would be a shame to have to retire such a watch just because the iPhone 8 requires the watch to have Watch OS 2.0 which only works on the second generation of Apple Watches...

A discussion about the costs of complexity could also be regarded as part of a discussion about social sustainability. Apple Watch is an example of how simple and robust technologies (mechanical watches) are replaced by capable but also more complex and frail systems (smartwatches) that surely will work most of the time but that will fail synchronously and catastrophically at times - and perhaps at the worst possible moment.

Self-winding mechanical watches were invented in the 1920's. The first electronic watches came in the 1970's and required you to replace their batteries at times. While smartwatches with enhanced functionality (beyond timekeeping) have existed for decades, current smartwatches are in fact computers with complex operating systems and where the battery life has typically been reduced to 3 or 4 days before the watch needs to be charged. The Apple Watch will work for 18 hours and thus needs to be charged every day. You need to dedicate a socket in home to your Apple Watch charger, you need to remember to charge your Apple Watch every night and perhaps also to buy a second charger that you carry with you at all times (including on trips) or that you have in your workplace. Perhaps you need a charger in your car too. A natural question is if these developments represent a step forward or a step backward? It's not always that easy to tell.

The Apple Watch is of course much more than just a watch - a device that tells you the time. It is also a "remote control" to many of the functions and services your smartphone provides and it also offers new functionality that your smartphone can't provide. It is probably a great product, but, it is for good and for bad also the equivalent of a jet fighter operating at the apex of a large and complex infrastructure with many interdependent parts - an infrastructure that is costly and vulnerable in comparison to non-digital stand-alone components. That infrastructure is also a superstructure, a new layer of complexity on top of an already complex system and I for one worry about what Apple Watch represents for issues such as vulnerability, sustainability, resource use and for further stoking the already revved-up engines of consumerism.

söndag 22 mars 2015

Books I've read (January)

This blog post treat books I read in January. The theme that unites these books is (media) technological inventions/developments. I regularly write about books that I have read on the blog and here is the previous blog post. The asterisks below represent the number of quotes from the book that can be found further below.

********* I have owned Tom Standage's "The Victorian Internet: The remarkable story of the telegraph and the nineteenth century's online pioneers" (1998) for a long time. I must have bought it more than 10 years ago and finally came around to reading it. The book is an easy and pleasant read. This is not the heaviest of books - Standage is a journalist - but it does provide a concise history of the rise, the rule and the decline of the telegraph over a period of not much more than 50 years (succumbing primarily to the telephone). The book has its fair share of anecdotes and reflections about how the telegraph shrunk the world, revolutionised communication and commerce and how it changed the world views of contemporary politicians, military men, captains of industry, swindlers and ordinary men and women. The book makes a point of latching on to "the Internet phenomenon" both in the title and on the back cover:

"Before the Internet, before the television, radio and telephone there was the telegraph... In the middle of Queen Victoria's reign this new communications technology annihilated distance and shrank the world faster than ever before. The international telegraph network revolutionised business practice and gave rise to new forms of crime. Romances blossomed over its cables. Governments tried and failed to regulate it. Meanwhile, out on the wires, a technological subculture with its own customs and vocabulary was establishing itself. Does all this sound familiar...? This is the story of the men and women who were the earliest pioneers of the on-line frontier, and the global network they created - a network that was in effect the Victorian Internet."

I am personally fascinated by the meeting of new (media) technologies and human behaviour. On the one hand new technologies that harbor the potential to revolutionise the world, and on the other hand strong or frail human beings who are driven by the same basic human motivations as ever. The end result are humans that try to accomplish much of the same as before, but now with a new tool in their toolbox. That also means they will explore and bend the new technologies to serve their purposes and in ways not imagined by the innovators and inventors of the technologies in question. It is interesting to not the least read about scammers, grifters and spies trying to use a (probably short-lived) informational advantage to their own purposes, as well as the police using innovative (then-)high-tech methods to wait for the arrival of a criminal who avoided the police elsewhere by jumping upon a departing train. With the telegraph, it was - for the first time ever - possible to send information faster than a horseman (e.g. the pony express) or a ship could convey a slip of paper. The concept of separating information from a physical medium and send it electronically, through cables, took some work getting used to for the people of that day and age. It's pretty fascinating when you think about it - it ought to have been a much bigger deal at the time than the arrival of the Internet has been. 

******** If Standage's book was an easy read, Carolyn Marvin's "When old technologies were new: Thinking about electric communication in the late nineteenth century" (1988) was the exact opposite. Learned, well referenced but pretty strenuous and cumbersome to get through. There is an overlap between Marvin's and Standage's books, but unless you have a special interest in the topics in question, I would recommend Standage's book over Marvin's. I understand that Marvin has a deep knowledge of the subjects she writes about - she has read up on the original material (journals) from the latter part of the 19th century. I unfortunately don't feel that she has the same talent for structuring her material and explaining it in ways that makes her deep knowledge available for those of us who do not know as much about the particular area she has researched. I might be wrong, but it does feel like the book might be an edited version of her ph.d. thesis. In the end there are too many details and not enough synthesis and interpretation to guide the reader. When I read the book, it felt like there were many findings and implications that were buried right under the surface of the text but that I "walked past" and didn't notice them when I read the book. From the back cover:

"In When old technologies were new Carolyn Marvin explores how two inventions - the telephone and the electric light - were publicly envisioned at the end of the nineteenth century, as seen in specialized engineering journals and popular media. From imaginative experimentation to widespread anxiety over the transformation of traditional class, family, and gender relations, Marvin examines the public reaction to electrical invention, how professional electric engineers tried to control new media, and how the "new technologies" affected a vast network of social habits and customs"

*********** I read Nicholas Carr's "The shallows" four years ago and appreciated it enough to later buy "The big switch: Rewiring the world, from Edison to Google" which was written in 2008 and thus predates "The shallows". "The big switch" is a book about "big ideas". It's more specifically a book about one particular big idea: the idea that computing is turning into a utility. Carr describes how technology and business had to come together on a big scale one hundred years ago for electricity to become a utility, and, he fruitfully compares that process to soon-to-happen switch in the world of computing. There are a couple of problems already at this point. The book was written seven years ago and it hasn't aged particularly gracefully. The phenomenon Carr writes about is nowadays called cloud computing but he doesn't use that term in the book (we does however refer to others who talk about "the computer in the cloud" twice). The practical effects of cloud computing are that we nowadays for the most part don't really care exactly where the computing power we use is situated. It's enough to know that it's out there (somewhere, in a data center) and that stuff just works when we want to use it (Blogger, Google docs, Spotify, Netflix, Facebook etc.).

While Carr does provide added value and a deeper understanding, it's hard to get appropriately excited about the basic concept the way I probably would have been had I read the books seven years ago when it was published. Nothing marks that a book as aged as much as references to obsolete technologies and platforms that are referred to in terms of "the latest technologies", e.g. MySpace and Blackberries. MySpace was overtake by Facebook in 2008-2009 and Blackberry have never been very popular in Europe in the first place and are now struggling (and for the most part failing) to compete with Android and iPhone smartphones in the marketplace. The big switch is despite this an easy read, written as it is by a journalist, but it's hard to recommend a book that is all about the previous "latest trend" despite its insights in regards to technological change. It's a little hard for me to understand why a new edition of the book was printed in 2013. Instead of reading the book itself, I would recommend the 11 quotes from the book (below) as a shortcut to reading the book.

**** Håkan Selg's ph.d. thesis "Researching the use of the Internet: A beginner's guide" was defended recently, in November 2014. Having already studied the (use of the) Internet as a consultant and an investigator, Selg's thesis is an in-depth inquiry into the area of "Internet Studies". I found the thesis - or rather the underlying research it rests on - strange. Håkan has not collected any primary material during the course of his ph.d. studies, but has instead carefully read every chapter of five different edited handbooks about Internet Studies and then spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out definitions, limits, labels and demarcations of what could possibly, in the widest possible sense, constitute Internet Studies (drawing on Human-Computer Interaction, mass communication studies, Internet in everyday life and Computer-mediated communication). Selg then goes on to use the resulting, relatively complicated scheme, to classify and analyse different approaches to studying the Internet - and uses his own, previously written semi-scholarly reports about various aspects about how Swedes use the Internet (written during the course of a decade, 2002-2011) as his "empirical material". I have never encountered anything similar before.

"Unknowingly I had been a temporary visitor in a number of fields and subfields on ICT use research and didn't belong anywhere. In an attempt to find a solution to this lack of home ground it will be necessary to first investigate the various methodologies employed as well as their philosophical origins [of various strands of Internet Studies], in the hope of identifying links to my own findings. Against this theoretical background I will then discuss how my own research efforts could be positioned."

The thesis consists of a large number of classification schemes and tables and it took me a long time to understand what Selg's "material" consisted of (e.g. his own previously-written reports). I can understand Selg's fascination with going back and thinking about what he really did during the years when he wrote all those reports. While he might reach some kind of closure at the personal level, I unfortunately don't think that is a particularly successful topic or method for writing a ph.d. thesis. It instead feels a lot like "armchair research". The Wikipedia page about "armchair theorizing" defines it as "an approach to providing new developments in a field that does not involve the collection of new information but, rather, a careful analysis or synthesis of existent scholarship". This is a fair description of Selg's research. While synthesis of existing scholarship can have its merits (economics as an academic discipline is used as an example), it is at the same time an anathema in other academic disciplines (e.g. in anthropology) and the term "armchair research" itself is most often used disparagingly.

The greatest problem I have with Selg's thesis is in the end not the theorising per se, but rather the fact that there is so much of it. It is abundantly clear that Selg has read widely in many different fields (including history of science), but it's harder to understand who Selg writes for. There are in the end just too many "excursions" in too many different directions and I as a reader became overwhelmed by the seemingly never-ending volume of sheer theorising. The specific topic of the thesis becomes fuzzy when the general impression is that it treats a great number of topics on a relatively general level. I had read almost 100 pages when I wrote a note in the margin: "is all this theorising actually your thesis, or does the theorising just lead up to your research?". It's not that good that I did not know the answer to that questions after having read close to half of the thesis. Leafing back to the beginning of the thesis, I can find Selg's motivation for the approach he has chosen, but I fail to find the actual, succinctly formulated research question that is supposed to drive the whole endeavour besides the general question "what is Internet Studies?".

The critique I levelled against Marvin (above) can also be levelled agains Selg. This is not a thesis that is particularly reader-oriented and the guiding light instead seems to have been for Selg to work through some "personal issues" and to then "write down everything he knows" about the results of this quest of his. Selg has read widely and obviously knows a lot, but it's harder to understand the relevance of the thesis, e.g. why would it be of particular interest to other persons - unless those persons also happen to have an intense interest in finding out the answer to the question "what constitutes Internet Studies?".


----- On the first electronic network spanning the globe  -----

"Expansion [of telegraph wires] was fastest in the United States, where the only working line at the beginning of 1846 was Morse's experimental line, which ran 40 miles from Washington and Baltimore. Two years later there were approximately 2,000 miles of wire, and by 1850 there were over 12,000 miles operated by 20 different companies." (p.58)
"Sending and receiving messages - which by the early 1850s had been dubbed 'telegrams' - was soon part of everyday life for many people around the world, though the expense involved meant that only the rich could afford to use the network to send trivial messages; most people only used the telegraph to convey really urgent news." (p.61)
Standage, T. (1998). "The Victorian Internet"

----- On failing to understand the workings of early electronic technologies  -----

"although the telegraph ... required neither the sender nor the receiver to own any special equipment - or understand how to use it - it was still a source of confusion to those unfamiliar with it.
[One] story concerned a woman in Karlsruhe who went to a telegraph office in 1870 with a dish full of sauerkraut, which she asked to have telegraphed to her son, who was a soldier fighting in the war between Prussia and France. The operator had great difficulty convincing her that the telegraph was not capable of transmitting objects. But the woman insisted that she had heard of soldiers being ordered to the front by telegraph: 'How could so many soldiers have been sent to France by telegraph?' she asked.
Another woman, on receiving a telegram from her son asking for money, said she was not so easily taken in: she said she knew her son's handwriting very well, and the message, transcribed at the receiving office, obviously hadn't come from him."
Standage, T. (1998). "The Victorian Internet", p.64-66

----- On dreams of the telegraph finally leading to world peace  -----

"The construction of a global telegraph network was widely expected ... to result in world peace. (p.81)
a toast proposed by Edward Thornton, the British Ambassador, emphasised the peacemaking potential of the telegraph. 'What can be more likely to effect [peace] than a constant and complete intercourse between all nations and individuals in the world?' he asked. 'Steam [power] was the first olive branch offered to us by science. Then came a still more effective olive branch - this wonderful electric telegraph'
another toast was to 'The telegraph wire, the nerve of international life, transmitting knowledge of events, removing causes of misunderstanding, and promoting peace and harmony throughout the world.' (p.87)
Unfortunately ... Better communication does not necessarily lead to a wider understanding of other points of view; and the potential of new technologies to change things for the better is invariably overstated, while the ways in which they will make things worse are usually unforeseen. (p.99)
Standage, T. (1998). "The Victorian Internet"

----- On 19th century telegraph offices as early information-processing centres in a global electronic network  -----

"pneumatic tube systems were soon being used to move messages around within major telegraph offices. Each of these offices was a vast information-processing centre - a hive of activity surrounded by a cat's cradle of telegraph wires, filled with pneumatic tubes, and staffed by hundreds of people whose sole purpose was to receive messages, figure out where to send them, and dispatch them accordingly. (p.93)
By the early 1870's the Victorian Internet had taken shape: a patchwork of telegraphy networks, submarine cables, pneumatic tube systems and messengers combined to deliver messages within hours over a vast area of the globe. (p.96)
In 1844, when Morse had started building the network ... sending a message from, say, London to Bombay and back took ten weeks. But within 30 years ... messages could be telegraphed from London to Bombay and back in as little as four minutes." (p.97)
Standage, T. (1998). "The Victorian Internet"

----- What was true for horse races yesterday is true for high-frequency/algorithmic trading today  -----

"With the telegraph's ability to destroy distance, it provided plenty of scope for exploiting information imbalances: situation where financial advantage can be gained in one place from exclusive ownership of privileged information that is widely known in another place. A classic example is horse racing"
Standage, T. (1998). "The Victorian Internet", p.101

----- On the implications of information travelling faster than ships  -----

"For years it had been customary in Britain for news of departing ships to be reported as they headed off to foreign conflicts; after all, the news could travel no faster than the ships themselves. But the telegraph meant that whatever information was made available in one country was soon know overseas. This took a lot of getting used to, both by governments and news organisations. As troops departed for the Crimean peninsula following the declaration of war on Russia by France and Britain in March 1854, the War Ministry in London issued precise detail of the numer and nature of the forces being deployed [and] daily reports of the British plans, lifted from that day's copy of The Times, could be telegraphed to Russia."
Standage, T. (1998). "The Victorian Internet", p.145

----- On the origins of information overload  -----

"In order to understand your fellow men, you really couldn't have too much news. Or could you? Not everyone wanted to know what was going on in far-flung countries. The precedence given to what it saw as irrelevant foreign news over importan local stories even led the Alpena Echo, a small newspaper in Michigan, to cut off its daily telegraph service in protest. According to a contemporary account, this was because  'it could not tell why the telegraph company caused it to be sent a full account of a flood in Shanghai, a massacre in Calcutta, a sailor fight in Bombay, hard frosts in Siberia, a missionary banquet in Madagascar, the price of kangaroo leather from Borneo' ... The seeds had been sown for a new problem: information overload.
Standage, T. (1998). "The Victorian Internet", p.152-153

----- On the telephone as a killer of "the telegraphic community"  -----

"Thanks to the relentless pace of technological change, telegraphy was changing from a high-skill to a low-skill occupation; from a carefully learned craft to something anyone could pick up. As the emphasis switched from skilled operators to the latest high-tech equipment, the tone of the telegraphic journals changed; the humorous stories and telegraph poetry were replaced by circuit diagrams and lengthy explanations aimed at technical and managerial readers, rather than the lowly minions who merely operated the machines. The growing use of automatic machinery was undermining the telegraphic community"
Standage, T. (1998). "The Victorian Internet", p.183

----- On technological utopianism from the telegraph to the Internet  -----

"The similarities between the telegraph and the Internet ... are striking. But the story of the telegraph contains a deeper lesson. ... the telegraph was the first technology to be seized upon as a panacea. Given its potential to change the world, the telegraph was soon being hailed as a means of solving the world's problems. It failed to do so, of course - but we have been pinning the same hope on other new technologies ever since. In the 1890s advocates of electricity claimed it would eliminate the drudgery of manual work and create a world of abundance and peace. In the first decade of the twentieth century, aircraft inspired similar flights of fancy: rapid intercontinental travel would, it was claimed, eliminate international differences and misunderstandings. ... Similarly, television was expected to improve education, reduce social isolation, and enhance democracy. Nuclear power was supposed to usher in an age of plenty where electricity would be 'too cheap to meter'. The optimistic claims now being made about the Internet are merely the most recent examples in a tradition of technological utopianism that goes back to the first transatlantic telegraph cables, 150 years ago."
Standage, T. (1998). "The Victorian Internet", p.197-198

----- On early electric technologies spanning time and space  -----

"Electric and other media precipitated new kinds of social encounters ... Classes, families, and professional communities struggled to come to terms with novel acoustic and visual devices that made possible communication in real time without real presence, so that some people were suddenly too close and others much too far away. New kinds of encounters collided with old ways of determining trust and reliability, and with old notions about the world and one's place in it: about the relation of men and women, rich and poor, black and white, European and non-European, experts and publics.
This study focuses especially on two inventions ... the electric light [and] the telephone"
Marvin, C. (1988). "When old technologies were new", p.5-6

----- New technologies have winners and losers  -----

"Featured in many stories [in "electricians' magazines"] was the frustration of the technologically unempowered, expressed as anger, fright, or other loss of personal control. These displays contrasted with the cool bearing of the professional, whose perfect awareness was accompanied by an equally flawless emotional control that suggested social and moral superiority. Uncontrolled emotion was displayed by men who were victims of their own technological ignorance, who had somehow shirked their responsibility to be technologically informed."
Marvin, C. (1988). "When old technologies were new", p.22

----- On the barbarity of the civilised  -----

"in 1897 the American Electrician published a series of stories about electrically improvised pranks. "It requires practical experience in such matters ... to appreciate them fully," one of the authors wrote, transforming the hostility these pranks expressed toward their irritating but powerless victims into a sophisticated mark of membership in the electrical fraternity. A stray dog was cured of his habit of stealing lunches by a charged wire baited with a juicy piece of meat. At an electric plant, engineers wired knobs on doors and cupboards so that a full turn would give a shock to street urchins prowling "where they had no business whatever." Another station was troubled by youngsters ... who stood with their fingers hooked to the netting that prevented their entry, but not their persistent observation. Annoyed station operators electrified the netting with a charge strong enough to keep the youngsters from yanking their hands loose until the current was turned off. A portion of this story was devoted to a detached discussion of the risk of electrocution from this trick improperly done."
Marvin, C. (1988). "When old technologies were new", p.33-34

----- On guarding an emerging profession's public appearance  -----

"audiences got the metaphorical point that ... science was a magical enterprise superior to lesser forms of magic ... Comparing Tesla's theatrical appearance at the Royal Institution in London in 1894 with a more straightforward, less enthusiastically received demonstration of Hertzian waves by Oliver Lodge, [the magazine] the Electrician weighed the need to present scientific information dramatically enough to capture public interest against the competing desire to convey a dignified appearance that would guarantee the respect of the scientific community. The difficulty in this tug of war was keeping the credibility of the priesthood intact. ... Good, or white, magic was science struggling against the twin enemies of the unknown and pseudoscience, or black magic."
Marvin, C. (1988). "When old technologies were new", p.58-59

----- On new media technology inventions changing the social mores  -----

""The invention of new machinery, devices, and process," reflected Telephony in 1905, "is continually brining up new questions of law, puzzling judges, lawyers, and laymen ... The doors may be barred and rejected suitor kept out, but how is the telephone to be guarded?" How indeed? New forms of communication created unprecedented opportunities not only for courting and infidelity but for romancing unacceptable persons outside one's own class, and even one's own race, in circumstances that went unobserved by the regular community. The potential for illicit sexual behavior had obvious and disquieting power to undermine accustomed centers of moral authority and social order."
Marvin, C. (1988). "When old technologies were new", p.70

----- On new media technology upsetting the social order  -----

"Asymmetries of dress, manner, and class that identified outsiders and were immediately obvious in face-to-face exchange were disturbingly invisible by telephone and telegraph, and therefore problematic and dangerous. Reliable cues for anchoring others to a social framework where familiar rules of transaction were organized around the relative status of the participants were subject to the tricks of concealment that new media made possible. Lower classes could crash barriers otherwise closed to them, and privileged classes could go slumming unobserved." (p.86)
"Women were considered especially susceptible to male manipulators of electrical technology because of their less-wordly experience in gauging trustworthiness. ... Widows and lone women were particularly helpless." (p.93)
Marvin, C. (1988). "When old technologies were new"

----- Elitism or early insights into the dangers of spam telephone calls?  -----

"In 1884 a subscriber in Edinburgh was outraged to learn that his local phone company planned to put a number of telephone "where any person off the street may for a trifling payment ... ring up any subscriber, and insist on holding a conversation with him." Against the plan, he argued that

"subscribers have the security at present that none but subscribers can address them in this way, and that these are equally interested in the telephone not becoming a nuisance. But if everybody who has a penny or threepence to spare can insist on being listened to by any of the leading business establishments of the city, we shall only be able to protect ourselves against triflers and intruders by paying less regard to all telephone communications.""
Marvin, C. (1988). "When old technologies were new", p.103

----- On the limits of technological imagination  -----

"What late-nineteenth-century writers in expert technical and popular scientific journals practice was a species of cognitive imperialism. Theis were vision of a globe efficiently administered by Anglo-Saxon technology, perhaps with exotic holidays, occasions, and decorations in dress and architecture, perhaps filled with more items and devices than any single person could imagine, but certainly not a world to disturb the fundamental idea of a single best cultural order. What these writers hoped to extend without challenge were self-conceptions that confirmed their dreams ... Even when, in the utopian manner, their declared goal was to turn the status quo upside down in pursuit of a better world, few of their schemes failed to reconstitute familiar social orders and frameworks of interpretation.
Marvin, C. (1988). "When old technologies were new", p.192

----- On (cloud) computing as a utility  -----

"General purpose technologies ... are best though of not as discrete tools but as platforms on which many different tools, or applications, can be constructed. ... Steam engines and waterwheels were general purpose technologies that didn't lend themselves to centralization. They had to be located close to the point where their power was used ... But electricity and computing ... can both be delivered efficiently from a great distance over a network. Because they don't have to be produced locally, they can achieve the scale economies of central supply."
Carr, N. G. (2008). "The big switch", p.15

----- On the implications of second-order effects of electrification to computing  -----

"As information utilities grow in size and sophistication, the changes to business and society - and to ourselves - will only broaden. And their pace will only accelerate. Many of the characteristics that define American society came into being only in the aftermath of electrification. The rise of the middle class, the expansion of public education, the flowering of mass culture, the movement of the population to the suburbs, the shift from an industrial to a service economy - none of these would have happened without the cheap current generated by utilities."
Carr, N. G. (2008). "The big switch", p.24

----- On ballooning corporate IT costs  -----

"At the close of the 1960s, the average American company devoted less than 10 percent of its capital equipment budget to information technology. Thirty years later, that percentage had increased more than fourfold, to 45 percent ... By 2000, in other words, the average US company was investing almost as much cash into computer systems as into all other types of equipment combined. Spending on software alone increased more than a hundred-fold during this period, from $1 billion in 1970 to $138 billion in 2000."
Carr, N. G. (2008). "The big switch", p.51

----- On fiber-optic broadband as the key enabler of cloud computing  -----

"throughout the history of computing, processing power has expanded far more rapidly than the capacity of communication networks. ... the scarcity of communications bandwidth has long been recognized as a barrier to effective and efficient computing. It has always been understood that, in theory, computing power, like electric power, could be provided over a grid from large-scale utilities ... But all these attempts at utility computing were either doomed or hamstrung by the lack of sufficient bandwidth. ...But now, at last, that's changing. The network barrier has, in just the last few years, begun to collapse. Thanks to all the fiber-optic cable laid by communications companies during the dotcom boom ... Internet bandwidth has become abundant and abundantly cheap. ... Now that data can stream through the Internet at the speed of light, the full pwoer of computers can finally be delivered to users from afar."
Carr, N. G. (2008). "The big switch", p.58-60

----- On the advantages of outsourcing computing and treating it as a utility  -----

"using [Amazon's cloud] services, a company can run a Web site or a corporate software application, or even operate an entire Internet business, without having to invest in any server computers, storage systems, or associated software. in fact, there are no upfront costs whatsoever - a company only pays for the capacity it uses when it uses it. And what it's renting isn't any ordinary computing system. It's a state-of-the-art system designed for modern Internet computing, offering high reliability, quick response times, and the flexibility to handle big fluctuations in traffic. Any company, even a on-peronson home business, can piggyback on a computing operation that Amazon took years to assemble and fine-tune."
Carr, N. G. (2008). "The big switch", p.73

----- On the death of "the frozen water" business at the hands of inexpensive electricity  -----

"During the 1800s, American companies had turned the distribution of ice into a thriving word-wide business. Huge sheets were sawn from lakes and rivers in northern states during the winter and stored in insulated icehouses. Packed in hay and tree bark, the ice was shipped in railcars or the holds of schooners to customers as far away as India and Singapore, who used it to chill drinks, preserve food, and make ice cream. At the trade's peak, around 1880, America's many "frozen water companies" were harvesting some 10 million tons of ice a year and earning millions in profit. ... But over the next few decades, cheap electricity devastated the business, first by making the artificial production of ice more economical and then by spurring homeowners to replace their iceboxes with electric refrigerators."
Carr, N. G. (2008). "The big switch", p.90

----- On affluence, deskilling and the electrification of the factory  -----

"Because electric current could be regulated far more precisely than power supplied though shafts and gears, it became possible to introduce a much wider range of industrial machines, leading to further "deskilling" of the workplace. Factory output skyrocketed, but jobs became mindless, repetitious, and dull. ... the modern assembly line ... would have been unthinkable before electrification. ... Just as he had pioneered the assembly line, [Henry] Ford also led the way in boosting blue-collar wages. ... Ford saw that higher wages were necessary to convince large numbers of men to take factory jobs that had become numbingly tedious ... Here is the first, but by no means the last, irony of electrification: even as factory jobs came to require less skill, they began to pay higher wages. And that helped set in motion one of the most important social developments of the century: the creation of a vast, prosperous American middle class."
Carr, N. G. (2008). "The big switch", p.91-93

----- On creating ourselves and our culture through our clicks  -----

"The Internet turns everything, from news-gathering to community-building into a series of tiny transactions - expressed mainly through clicks on links - that are simple in isolation yet extraordinarily complicated in the aggregate. Each of us may make hundreds or even thousands of clicks a day, some deliberately, some impulsively, and with each one we are constructing our identity, shaping our influences, and creating our communities. As we spend more time and do more things online, our combined clicks will shape our economy, our culture, and our society. We're still a long way from knowing where our clicks will lead us. But it's clear that two of the hopes most dear to the Internet optimists - that the Web will create a more bountiful culture and that it will promote greater harmony and understanding - should be treated with skepticism. Cultural impoverishment and social fragmentation seem equally likely outcomes.
Carr, N. G. (2008). "The big switch", p.167-168

----- On the gap between our perceived and our real (non-)anonymity online  -----

"most of us assume that we're anonymous when we go about our business online. We treat the Internet not just as a shopping mall and a library but as a personal diary and even a confessional. Through the sites we visit and the searches we make, we disclose details not only about our jobs, hobbies, families, politics, and health but also about our secrets, fantasies, obsession, peccadilloes, and even, in the most extreme cases, our crimes. But our sense of anonymity is largely an illusion. Detailed information about everything we do online is routinely gathered, stored in corporate or governmental databases, and connected to our real identities, either explicitly through our user names, our credit card numbers, and the IP addresses automatically assigned to our computers or implicitly through our searching and surfing histories."
Carr, N. G. (2008). "The big switch", p.186-187

----- On the liberating *and* controlling nature of computers and the Internet  -----

"Computer systems in general and the Internet in particular put enormous power into the hands of individuals, but they put even greater power into the hands of companies, governments, and other institutions whose business it is to control individuals. Computer systems are not at their core technologies of emancipation. They are technologies of control. They were designed as tools for monitoring and influencing human behavior, for controlling what people do and how they do it. ... Even as the World Wide Computer grants us new opportunities and tools for self-expression and self-fulfillment, it is also giving others and unprecedented ability to influence how we think and what we do, to funnel our attention and actions toward their own ends. The technology's ultimate social and personal consequences will be determined in large measure by how the tension between the two sides of its nature - liberating and controlling - comes to be resolved."
Carr, N. G. (2008). "The big switch", p.191-192

----- On dependency on the Machine as a blessing and a nightmare  -----

"Kevin Kelly writes [in Wired Magazine in 2005] "What will most surprise us is how dependent we will be on what the Machine knows - about us and about what we want to know. We already find it easier to Google something a second or third time rather than remember it ourselves. The more we teach this meagcomputer, the more it will assume responsibility for our knowing. It will become our memory. Then it will become our identity. In 2015 many people, when divorced from the Machine, won't feel like themselves - as if they'd had a lobotomy." Kelly welcomes the prospect.
Kelly's description of man's growing dependency on computers carries a disquieting, in inadvertent, echo of a passage in the notorious manifest written by Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber. ... "Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won't be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide." What was for Kaczynski a paranoia-making nightmare is for Kelly a vision of utopia."
Carr, N. G. (2008). "The big switch", p.226

----- On the positive bias at play when new technologies are evaluated  -----

"In the early stages of [technological] diffusion processes, the techncal experts assume a key role in this knowledge creation. From their position as professionals with strong involvement in the related technical developments, they are usually enthusiastic about the emerging technologies, focusing more on the perceived advantages of the innovations, while forgetting about their obvious shortcomings. These experts become the ambassadors of the new technology. ... ambassadors generally exaggerate the characteristics of their innovations compared to alternative solutions. Secondly, they tend to be technlogy-centered rather then user-centered; the user they have in mind is an idealised being that fits the technology at hand exactly. And as a by-product there is a tacit perception of the non-users as individuals suffering from some kind of defect, or in a slightly more positive interpretation, as merely being laggards. These two circumstance taken together contribute to an image presented to the public of unstoppable success for the technology in question and a rapid path of diffusion as an evident result."
Selg, H. (2014). "Researching the use of the internet", p.23

----- On science vs religion vs technology  -----

"Who is a scientist, and how do we distinguish her or him from other knowledgeable people? John Tydall (1820-1893) ... attempted to answer the question by drawing up the boundaries between science and religion on the one hand, and between science and technology on the other ... With respect to religion, Tydall argued that a diverging feature is the general attitude: the scientist is supposed to be sceptical whereas the common denominator among religious practitioners is faith. Compared to technology, science is theoretical with a clear aim to understand causal principles while the mechaniscian does not go beyond observed facts. ... By emphasising different characteristics of science, Tydall managed to draw borderlines on two sides: scientific knowledge is empirical when contrasted with the metaphysics of religion, but it is theoretically abstract when compared to the common-sense, hands-on observations of engineers.
Selg, H. (2014). "Researching the use of the internet", p.61

----- On big (natural) science vs small (social) science  -----

"the emergence of laboratory-based natural sciences as the dominant - and often very expensive - form of knowledge production during the twentieth century ... required external funding on considerably higher levels than traditional university toil, which in turn put pressur on the scientists to coordinate goals and strategies; not every university could afford its own particle accelerator. This in turn led to a reduction in theoretical pluralism.
the humanities and social sciences represent a fairly inexpensive form of academic life, which as a side effect puts less demand on the co-ordination of goals. Thus ... theoretical and methodological diversity may flourish.
Selg, H. (2014). "Researching the use of the internet", p.68

----- On why people don't use new technologies  -----

"Asking non-users about the motives for abstaining from ICT use is dubious from [a] methodological point of view. People without personal experience cannot be expected to provide knowledge about new technologies and their characteristics in the context of the respondent's life. What the person may present is his or her general attitude ... According to my own experience from such conversations, the motives expressed typically are 1) perceived lack of need for the new technology, alternatively that (2) a need i acknowledged, but that the person interviewed say they lack the time and/or skills and/or money required to explore the new technology."
Selg, H. (2014). "Researching the use of the internet", p.126

söndag 15 mars 2015

After work - Life after jobs disappear

I'm part of an ad-hocish group that will organise a symposium at KTH next month on the theme "After work" - what do we do when the robots have taken our jobs?". The symposium will more specifically be held on Tuesday April 21 (17.00-20.00) and we have a great program and a great line-up of speakers for the event. The program is divided into three parts (one hour each):

  1. Technological and economic driving forces behind computerisation (see further below)
  2. The lost jobs and the new jobs
  3. Effects on the individual and on society
The organisers have met regularly since the end of last year and the other organisers are:
Here is a background to this seminar about automatisation and the consequences for work. It is not an official text from the group who organises the symposium, but rather the background of my own personal interest in these topics (parts are based on a report I wrote last year):

While machines have been used to mechanise industry and agriculture for a century or more, the arrival of industrial robots during the 1970’s and 1980’s marked the beginning of a new phase of mechanisation. What is new is that mechanisation, automatisation, informationalisation and rationalisation now have reached also office/white collar jobs and we can expect many such professions to be replaced by computers and algorithms during the next few decades. Any task that a human being does, but that could be executed by a robot and/or a computer (e.g. an algorithm), will over time tend to see the human being replaced by a robot and/or computers - and some now argue that the pace is picking up. Brynjolfsson and McAfee, in their book "Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution Is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment" (2011) argue that the increase in pace is a result of the combination of a number of mechanical and especially digital (computational) technologies that are now coming together, and, that the result will be that people will be replaced by technologies at an increasing pace. A research report from 2013 by Frey and Osborne (The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation?) sifted through 700 professions in the US market and concluded that up to 46% of these professions could be replaced by digital and automated technologies within the next 20 years. Google's chairman Eric Schmidt agrees in an article titled "The robots are coming for your job" (McFarland 2014) as does Bill Gates who states that "people don't realize how many jobs will soon be replaced by software bots" (Bort 2014).

So, will new jobs be created automagically as old jobs disappear or are these developments something that changes the rules of the game? Might this be something we should think about and plan for already today? If so, how? These are the questions we want to raise at the symposium and we hope that we can fill the lecture hall we have booked to the very last seat with academics, politicians, industry representatives, intellectuals, students etc. My 5 cents that I bring to the table extends the questions above into areas related to sustainability; what would such developments mean for production and consumption? What would it mean for work life and time use? Will we share jobs and leisure time more equally in the future (at a lower material standard than today) or will we see a bifurcation in our societies between the busy haves and the poor have-nots?

We have a great line-up of speakers and panelists and I think the event will be great. Already planning the event has lead to many interesting and thought-provoking discussions within the group of organisers. Do we work too much? Sure we do! Do I work too much? Sure I do! Should we plan ahead for "basic income" (a guaranteed citizen's salary/minimal income)? We should probably consider it and it would be a boon for environmental and social sustainability, but how would it be financed? I hope we will get to discuss these and other question on April 21. See you then!

söndag 8 mars 2015

Our planned master's level track "probably unique"

I wrote a blog post about our master's level track, "Sustainable Information Society" only a month ago when we found out that yes, we will be able to develop it and start to teach it 1.5 years from now. Those news resulted in an interview that was picked up and developed by the central KTH press function. The result is the text below - a translation from the Swedish-language original text that for a while was available on KTH's front page. The track will start in the autumn of 2016 - 18 months from now - so it feels a bit blown out of proportion at this point, but, here it is:

Environmentally friendly IT new master's level specialisation at KTH

From the autumn of 2016, students at KTH can immerse themselves in information technology and sustainability as part of their masters program. The specialisation is probably unique, it will be part of their two-year long masters program that will be called Sustainable Information Society.

- As far as we know KTH will be the only university in the world that offers this kind of specialization in IT and sustainability. It is an important specialisation: there is great potential in the use of IT to improve efficiency and decrease carbon emissions in different sectors of society, says Daniel Pargman, KTH researcher and leader of the group that developed the proposal for the new specialisation.

He says that the School of Computer Science and Communication at KTH is in the process of developing their master's level programmes. Today there are three different media technology and Human-Computer Interaction masters programmes [123] but these will be replaces by one program with six different specialisations. Information Technology and Sustainability will thus becomes one such specialisation.

- The fact that KTH now further promotes itself in sustainability education and research will allow us to deepen our competence and our skills in this field. Furthermore, it gives us additional opportunities to partner with business, industry and public administration in the form of graduate projects and master's theses, says Daniel Pargman.

During the spring, the School of Computer Science and Communication will announce a job position as Assistant Professor in Human-Computer Interaction with a focus on sustainability.

A few typical jobs that students who read the specialisation can look forward to is to work with how IT can be used in our cities and our homes to reduce resource consumption. This will be part of the so-called smart homes of the future. But also smarter transportation is needed in the future, both in terms of personal and collective services. Concretely, this may mean that the students will develop various IT services, like travel planners.

Students will, at the same time, also acquire basic knowledge of life cycle analysis and systems thinking.

- The new masters program is of course also exciting for the Centre for Sustainable Communications; a concrete example of how work undertaken within the frame of the KTH Centre will live on in the future, says Daniel Pargman.

The Master program Sustainable Information Society will be held in English to attract students from different parts of the world.