Categories: philosophy, technology, web

intimacy & the question concerning digital technology

Martin Heidegger’s 1954 piece, The Question Concerning Technology transformed the way I look at technology (it’s really dense, and the translation is heavy-handed). I read it in 1995, a decade before I got implicated in the web, and 40 years after it was published. When I first started writing on the web in 2004, I had a draft post, consisting of one sentence, called “The Question Concerning Digital Technology,” which was to be an attempt at an update of the Heidegger piece for a networked world. That draft has long since disappeared, but I’ve been thinking about it again of late.

A rough summary of Heidegger’s argument is:

It’s a compelling description of technology in general, and the web in particular: that the prime driving force is ordering “nature” (in a broad sense), with the result being, more or less, efficiency. If you look at what we’ve all been doing over the last few years on the web, much of the most exciting things had to do with ordering – specifically information, for more efficient access:

The list can go on and on, and of course “technology” does many different things, beyond “just” ordering, but in general the force propelling technology often seems to be mastery of the world around us for our use, one way or another. Which, as Heidegger points out, has worrisome implications for all of us.

I’ve always come at technology from something like this angle: I’m not particularly interested in technology per se, I am interested in the ways we might use it to make our lives richer and more meaningful. And in general, I think that creating things is the activity that gives humans the greatest sense of meaning and richness in their lives. Certainly that’s the case for me, and from my beginnings on the web, it was the confluence of free software (that is, the building and dissemination of free tools), collaboration, and unlimited distribution that excited me. “Everyone” could create things now, and share those things with the world. The projects I am most proud of (LibriVox, Atwater Digital Literacy) are platforms for people to create things that, I hope, bring richness into their own lives. I’ve always considered LibriVox as most important for what it does for our volunteers: it gives them a way to deepen their connection to a text they love, to read it and record it, and give it away; to make connections with literature that they might not have made otherwise. That we’re also making a free library of audio literature for the world is in some ways a fringe benefit. [Interestingly, and as a side note, coding itself is, to coders, a deeply creative and satisfying enterprise].

Of late, I’ve been feeling cold about the web. So much of what is going on is the ordering of nature, which, if you believe Heidegger, is the inevitable drive of technology. And “dangerous” for our humanity. I know many people involved in working on tranches of this ordering, and I have a few projects along this line as well (datalibre, earideas, collectik). Just off the top of my head: Evan’s Wikitravel tries to better order travel info; Vinismo order’s wine information; Dopplr tries to better manage your travel, and intersections with others who are moving around too; pal mat is working on google maps, ordering geography; the praized guys are building a better system to organize places and preferences. More will come. All of it is “good,” in the sense that it makes it easier to do the things we want to do, but I often hear Heidegger’s warning echoing through my mind: in ordering nature, we are becoming that which is ordered, and so we risk losing our humanity.

Here are some of the things that are coming, I think, from the inevitable drive of technology to order nature, and our human desire to have efficient sorting systems:

Lots of money will be made (if all goes well, some of it by friends of mine) finding new and different ways to do all this, and more and more. In essence, we’ll continue to use the web (and increasingly, mobile devices) to better order nature. And we’ll become better ordered at the same time.

Looking at this very brief list of what’s going to happen, I can’t help but think: “so what?” Is any of this going to make people’s lives richer or more meaningful?

My suspicion is “no.” I say this as a digital native, if a relatively recent, adoptive native (starting in 2004). For myself, I have found that the price of the benefits of the web has been heavy: while the web has allowed me to do all sorts of things, to build things and relationships, and projects, I find the quality of my time on the web so often unsatisfying. In a comparison of value to me between a random “leisure” hour on the web and a random hour doing something else in the real world, the real world trumps the web almost every time. Yet the web still usually wins the battle for my time (this says as much about me as it does about the web, of course).

I had a dinner a while back with Mike Lenczner, of Ile Sans Fil, and Jon Udell and some others, and this was the question MIke was asking, more or less: “so what?” Is free wifi access for all really such a great thing for people? Free encyclopedia? Free audio books? That’s not to say there is no value in those things, but we in the tech world imbue this stuff with a magical capacity to improve people’s lives, and I don’t think it’s clear that it has. Much less RSS feeds and online bookmarking. Free Software we see as a moral victory; OLPC as a revolutionary project that will save Africa; global voices online, as a dialogue builder that will transform our understanding of each other. All these things are good, great even, and there are countless other examples of wonderful online projects. But part of me agrees with Michael: it’s not clear that on balance they are truly improving people’s lives in any real sense.

But the point of all this is not really to criticize the web, nor to gnash teeth about the things people, including me, are building with it. Rather it’s a call to look at technology from a different angle, a call to designers and technologists and webbies and to consider a different approach, inspired by Heidegger’s solution of technology as art.

The web provides us enormous and efficient access, but a problem seems to me that it strips away the intimacy of our connection. Consider reading a book, versus reading on line; conversing in IM versus having a coffee; viewing a photo versus touching an object. This is not to criticize any of these experiences, or to say we are stuck with the modes and interfaces and tools we have now. I’m not saying that the web means less intimacy, exactly.

But what if we, those of us trying to make the world better with what we do on the web, rethink our projects in these terms. Leave the ordering for a moment, and consider intimacy instead.

What can we, as a community interested in making lives richer and more meaningful, do with technology to help humans experience more intimacy with the things that are important to them?

I don’t really have any answers, but it seems to me that it’s a challenge worth considering.

The web, and technology, will continue to order the world, there is no doubt about that. Your participation in this process is fine – and probably lucrative. But there is more, and more exciting things to think about.

A truly radical and creative use of technology, will find ways to help humans become more intimate with the things that matter to them. Those things might be art, books or songs; and people; probably food, and family. I don’t really know what else, and I don’t really know what I expect this to mean, but I think it’s worth thinking about.

One Nation Under Google

Well worth checking out.

One Nation Under Google: Citizenship in the Technological Republic

A public talk by Professor Darin Barney
Canada Research Chair in Technology & Citizenship, McGill University.

Friday, March 14, 2008
Arts W-215, 853 Sherbrooke Street West, McGill University
18h30, free

Does more technology equal more freedom? While the nuts and bolts of technological progress – computers, cellphones, internet access wired and wireless – become accessible to more and more people, the promise of increased civic engagement enabled by these gadgets seems to have eluded our wired society. There’s a lot more to technology, and to democracy, than wires and buttons, and it has a much deeper affect on our lives than simply being tools we can use well or badly.

In Dr. Barney’s words, “technology is, at once, irretrievably political and consistently depoliticizing. It is at the centre of this
contradiction that the prospects for citizenship in the midst of technology lie.” Presenting a range of examples from YouTube to the
hidden networks of food production and government bureaucracy, Barney contests the common notion that technology necessarily leads to enhanced freedom and improved civic engagement. One Nation Under Google examines the challenge of citizenship in a technological society, and asks whether the demands of technology are taking over the practice of democracy.

Presented in collaboration with CKUT 90.3FM

[ps, godshdarn it, ckut has a frustrating web site]

QUESTION: How can you hold the “Canada Research Chair in Technology & Citizenship” and not have a blog?

lego, power, open projects

Kids in a school start building Legotown. Eventually, powerful Legotown figures emerge, and inequalities surface. Some kids are excluded from Legotown, some control the enterprise, some struggle against each other; trading markets develop for various pieces. Teachers get nervous. Eventually, Legotown gets destroyed by external forces, and teachers ponder what they’ve wrought, and start a number of “experiments” to see how the kids react to changing rules.

Why We Banned Legos: Exploring power, ownership, and equity in an early childhood classroom, by Ann Pelo and Kendra Pelojoaquin. A wonderful and thought-provoking essay/report.

[I should note that I am glad I was not in this class as a kid, with these somehow-creepy-social-engineering teachers]

All of it applies somehow to the “open” world of the web, in some ways I have not quite figured out yet. Here are some choice paras:

The nature of power:

During the boom days of Legotown, we’d suggested to the key Lego players that there was an unequal distribution of power giving rise to conflict and tension. Our suggestions were met with deep resistance. Children denied any explicit or unfair power, making comments like “Some-body’s got to be in charge or there would be chaos,” and “The little kids ask me because I’m good at Legos.” They viewed their power as passive leadership, benignly granted, arising from mastery and long experience with Legos, as well as from their social status in the group.

What does power look like?:

We began by inviting the children to draw pictures of power, knowing that when children represent an idea in a range of “languages” or art media, their understandings deepen and expand. “Think about power,” said Kendra. “What do you think ‘power’ means? What does power look like? Take a few minutes to make a drawing that shows what power is.”

As children finished their drawings, we gathered for a meeting to look at the drawings together. The drawings represented a range of understandings of power: a tornado, love spilling over as hearts, forceful and fierce individuals, exclusion, cartoon superheroes, political power.

On being powerless (in one of the post-Legotown trading games):

When the teaching staff met to reflect on the Lego trading game, we were struck by the ways the children had come face-to-face with the frustration, anger, and hopelessness that come with being on the outside of power and privilege. During the trading game, a couple of children simply gave up, while others waited passively for someone to give them valuable pieces. Drew said, “I stopped trading because the same people were winning. I just gave up.” In the game, the children could experience what they’d not been able to acknowledge in Legotown: When people are shut out of participation in the power structure, they are disenfranchised — and angry, discouraged, and hurt.

On system unfairness vs. individual unfairness:

To make sense of the sting of this disenfranchisement, most of the children cast Liam and Kyla as “mean,” trying to “make people feel bad.” They were unable or unwilling to see that the rules of the game — which mirrored the rules of our capitalist meritocracy — were a setup for winning and losing. Playing by the rules led to a few folks winning big and most folks falling further and further behind. The game created a classic case of cognitive disequilibrium: Either the system is skewed and unfair, or the winners played unfairly. To resolve this by deciding that the system is unfair would call everything into question; young children are committed to rules and rule-making as a way to organize a community, and it is wildly unsettling to acknowledge that rules can have built-in inequities. So most of the children resolved their disequilibrium by clinging to the belief that the winners were ruthless — despite clear evidence of Liam and Kyla’s compassionate generosity.

On ownership (which, by the way, illustrates the radical and difficult departure that projects like LibriVox force us to confront, and why public domain – renouncing ownership – is so much more radical than creative commons – which just defines new rules of ownership):

In their reflections, the children articulated several shared theories about how ownership is conferred.

* If I buy it, I own it:

Sophia: “She owns the lavender balls because she makes them, but if I buy it, then it’s mine.”

* If I receive it as a gift, I own it:

Marlowe: “My mom bought this book for me because she thought it would be a good reading book for me. I know I own it because my mom bought it and she’s my mom and she gave it to me.”

* If I make it myself, I own it:

Sophie: “I sewed this pillow myself with things that my teacher gave me, like stuffing and fabric. I sewed it and it turned into my pillow because it’s something I made instead of something I got at the store.”

* If it has my name on it, I own it:

Alex: “My teacher made this pillow for me and it has my name on it.”

Kendra: “If I put my name on it, would I own it?”

Alex: “Well, Miss S. made it for me… but if your name was on it, then you would own it.”

Sophie: “Kendra, don’t put your name on it, OK?”

* If I own it, I make the rules about it:

Alejandro: “I own this computer, because my grandpa gave it to me. I lend it to my friends so that they can play with it. But I make the rules about it.”

Teachers impose the Bolshevik Revolution, to build New Legotown:

We invited the children to work in small, collaborative teams to build Pike Place Market with Legos. We set up this work to emphasize negotiated decision-making, collaboration, and collectivity. We wanted the children to practice the big ideas we’d been exploring. We wanted Lego Pike Place Market to be an experience of group effort and shared ownership: If Legotown was an embodiment of individualism, Lego Pike Place Market would be an experiment in collectivity and consensus.

Kids start sounding like zombie-versions of Newt Gingrich’s worst nightmare:

From our conversations, several themes emerged.

* Collectivity is a good thing:

“You get to build and you have a lot of fun and people get to build onto your structure with you, and it doesn’t have to be the same way as when you left it…. A house is good because it is a community house.”

* Personal expression matters:

“It’s important that the little Lego plastic person has some identity. Lego houses might be all the same except for the people. A kid should have their own Lego character to live in the house so it makes the house different.”

* Shared power is a valued goal:

“It’s important to have the same amount of power as other people over your building. And it’s important to have the same priorities.”

“Before, it was the older kids who had the power because they used Legos most. Little kids have more rights now than they used to and older kids have half the rights.”

* Moderation and equal access to resources are things to strive for:

“We should have equal houses. They should be standard sizes…. We should all just have the same number of pieces, like 15 or 28 pieces.”

Teachers get excited by the raw clay of Hobbesian childhood they have molded, through idealism and power structure management, into paragons of Rawlsian enlightenment:

As teachers, we were excited by these comments. The children gave voice to the value that collectivity is a solid, energizing way to organize a community — and that it requires power-sharing, equal access to resources, and trust in the other participants.

Paradise, built and achieved:

From this framework, the children made a number of specific proposals for rules about Legos, engaged in some collegial debate about those proposals, and worked through their differing suggestions until they reached consensus about three core agreements:

*All structures are public structures. Everyone can use all the Lego structures. But only the builder or people who have her or his permission are allowed to change a structure.
*Lego people can be saved only by a “team” of kids, not by individuals.
*All structures will be standard sizes.

With these three agreements — which distilled months of social justice exploration into a few simple tenets of community use of resources — we returned the Legos to their place of honor in the classroom.

A fascinating story, and one I need to think about more. It’s very relevant to life in places like LibriVox, I think, and I’m not sure why I am reacting with at least some negative cynicism. Maybe because one power-structures not examined is the relationship between kids and teachers? Maybe because the kids didn’t choose to participate in this experiment? Anyway, why do I not celebrate this experience, which mirrors in some ways the collectivist-do-goodness that underlies a project like LibriVox? To ponder more.

Hmm, maybe I am just having a bad day? Any thoughts on this from yon readers?

[this comes via mike migurski]

Categories: audio, philosophy, science


I listen to lots of audio, my preference being radio documentaries while cooking. Yesterday I listened to the best thing I have heard in ages, a piece by WNYC’s RadioLab called Space:

In the 60’s, space exploration was an American obsession. But the growing reality of space has turned the romance to cynicism. We chart the path from then to now. We begin with Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan, with a story about the Voyager expedition, true love, and golden record that travels through space. For a dose of reality, astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson explains the Coepernican Principle and just how insignificant we are

Listen here (on earideas). It’s fabulous.

Categories: philosophy, web

The internet is a copy machine

Kevin Kelly writes about what values start becoming more important when copies are free:

The internet is a copy machine….

Yet the previous round of wealth in this economy was built on selling precious copies, so the free flow of free copies tends to undermine the established order….

When copies are free, you need to sell things which can not be copied….

Trust cannot be copied. You can’t purchase it. Trust must be earned, over time. It cannot be downloaded. Or faked. Or counterfeited (at least for long). If everything else is equal, you’ll always prefer to deal with someone you can trust. So trust is an intangible that has increasing value in a copy saturated world.

There are a number of other qualities similar to trust that are difficult to copy….

From my study of the network economy I see roughly eight categories of intangible value that we buy when we pay for something that could be free…


The eight categories are: Findability, Patronage, Embodiment, Accessibility, Authenticity, Interpretation, Personalization, Immediacy.

[via: Open Access News]

Categories: philosophy, video

are you a teacher?

if you are a teacher, you should watch this.

if you are not a teacher, you should watch it too.

the most famous professor and his students

Michael Wesch of Kansas State University is probably the most famous university prof in the world, or at least he will be soon. Millions have read seen his articles videos in academic journals on Youtube, most famously, Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us, and more recently Information R/evolution.

The latest looks at students and their strange relationship with our academic institutions and models, which were designed before the telephone, not to mention the iPhone.

A Vision of Students Today:

[Link… to class blog; link to French translation]

How new is it, I wonder, that teachers can’t understand the world their students inhabit? It’s always been true to a certain extent, but the disconnect previously was mostly cultural … here it seems to me more environmental, and so fundamental. The mechanisms for communicating are changing, has changed (communicating the big ideas, facts, thoughts, as well as the minutia of of daily lives), and with pervasive computing and constant connection to the web, the way we think is changing too. For better or worse doesn’t really matter, it just will change.

Questions/comments (these have all been kicking around for a while, but still):
1. fact-learning: what is the value of memory when all the facts we might need to remember are available at our fingertips?

2. collateral damage: given the long success of fact-learning, what happens if that fades away as a prime method of educating? what else do we lose (eg, powers of focused concentration, the brain-training that memorizing things does)

3. plagiarism: copying is so easy now. instead of demanding that people not copy, maybe we should raise/change the standards of what we expect work to look like, assume it will be copied and pasted, and require that it be relevant in more important ways (see #1 above) … I see the parallel with with wikipedia/britannica question. if the info itself is free and available on wikipedia, then if britannica wants to be relevant, maybe it’s just going to have to think harder about what it can do better than wikipedia. ditto with schooling. maybe we need to move *beyond* “plagiarism is bad” to something more meaningful.

4. lecture halls: what are big classrooms for? i rarely went to many of my big lectures when I was in university – all that info was in the textbook, so why attend a dry lecture with a bad prof? it didn’t make sense to me then, and it seems crazier now. in the case of small classes I have a different opinion.

5. discipline: here I mean mental discipline. I notice this myself, with online distractions everywhere, I often find it hard to concentrate and apply the long-term discipline needed to Get Things Done. Part of how I have adapted is by trying to harness that lack of discipline, a prime example being LibriVox … which I once joked should have as a motto, “powered by procrastination.” This is the area that “worries” me most, because it’s the thing in my own life that concerns me. maybe we need to start thinking more about how to use unfocused, ambient mental energy for important things?

6. radical changes: while I think the changes in technology mean we need some radical rethinking of education, radical changes are always dangerous, you never know what other side-effects might overtake the initial effects. we need to be careful. if only someone would invent a way to have instantaneous feedback from multiple sources in an open intellectual system, it would make things easier!

7. The most important things an “education” can provide are:
a) critical thinking: ability to think critically about problems, this means ability to see a problem, to understand it’s context and history, and to be able to analyze various options and decide on the one that seems most likely to “work”. this is as true in science as in humanities and arts.

b) clarity: are we becoming less clear in our thinking and writing? losing the discipline of writing clearly, for instance, is bad news. the open web results a enormous amounts of unclear/undisciplined writing … so, are we really losing that skill, or is it just that there is far more writing and thinking being captured than ever before, and hence we see more of the unclear stuff – where before only the clear stuff got into writing? does clarity really matter? (yes). what’s to be done? or does that ask the wrong question?

Just some notes to ponder.

And also, more out of curiosity, I wonder how humans will adapt to these big changes that are only scratching the surface?

the only real divide

I’m not sure why, but I’ve been thinking lately about conservatives and progressives, and the problems of our current climate of political debate, heightened exponentially by cable news pundits in the USA. I have a trip to Saskatoon coming up, and I was thinking of contacting a few Sask bloggers, and Small Dead Animals comes pretty high in the search. It’s well-known right-leaning mostly-political blog from a woman in Saskatchewan, and a couple of the posts I read were … well they really turned me off. They seemed so pointlessly hostile to the “left.” And I landed on a couple of other Sask blogs, and had the same reaction (later I found some more comfortably lefty-like Sask blogs).

And yet much of the stuff on the lefty blogs is the same sort of thing (here too, probably): juvenile name-calling etc. But it steams us when we disagree; when we agree, it’s usually pretty funny stuff.

And further, I betcha if I met Kate of SDA, we’d probably get along fine, even if I don’t like her politics, and she doesn’t like mine, she’d probably not an idiot* (see below), and we’d probably have a fine discussion about healthcare or terrorism without wanting to punch each other.

We have some friends, Bruce and Michelle. Bruce is about as far at the other end of the spectrum of my political beliefs as you can get – and every time I read his political blog posts, I get all red-eared. Yet when we meet, and even when we talk about politics, I realize how close we are about our various frustrations with the state of the universe. We just have different explanations, often, for why things are messed up (I blame evil corporations; he blames corrupt governments; I blame the Conservatives, he blames the Liberals … we’re both right and we’re both wrong).

And I’ll bet you that most of us, lefties and righties – the non-idiots, at least – want more or less the same thing: a healthy country/planet, where we can leave things better for our kids, and where everyone gets a fair shot at having a decent life, where the rivers run clean and everyone’s got a job that lets them get the stuff they need; where the chances of getting killed by SARS or cancer or car crashes or corrupt police or terrorists or nuclear explosions are minimized.

On just about any issue (health care, security, environment etc), most non-idiot lefties and righties want the same sorts of outcomes.

And the real problem is not so much that we all want different things for the planet, but rather that we have some fundamental disagreements about how to get there, and what sort of impacts the different decisions about our course of action will have. Which are, sort of, testable differences: that is, some of them work and some of them don’t, and over time reasonable people should be able to look at policies, and outcomes, and decide based on the outcomes (rather than the philosophies behind them) whether they’re good or not.

Oh, one other thing I find strange about the political left-right split is that a belief about one subject is often directly correlated to a belief about another totally unrelated subject, eg. War on Terrorism, and Climate Change … and the other strange thing about those two threats in particular is that both sides use the same logic to argue one, and discount the other: climate change is a significant risk, therefore we must do extraordinary things to protect ourselves; terrorism is a significant risk, therefore we must do extraordinary things to protect ourselves. Yet no one on the right *wants* climate disaster, they just don’t believe we can or ought to do what’s being proposed; and no one on the left *wants* the “terrorists to win,” they just don’t believe what we are doing is the right strategy to deal with the threat.

Anyway, I think there are a couple of big problems: righties and lefties don’t talk much together about what they do want for the world, and the reasons they think actions A are better than actions B to get there. And further, the discussion between left and right is mediated – more in the US than here, but here too – by people who *are* idiots, and are paid to be idiots, because that makes people mad, and that sells advertising.

*All this brought to you by a quote from Marjane Satrapi (via Matt):

‘The only real divide in this world is between the idiots and non-idiots.’


politics, morality and evolution

I started writing about this ages ago, but have not finished yet… but in a discussion with Michael, the idea came up again, and I wrote a long comment there, which I’ll reproduce here (slightly redacted):

my theory of morality is this: moral ideas are cultural constructs that sink or swim based on their ability to “improve” lives & societies, where improve means: makes it easier for a bigger number of people to be well-provided-for, to solve problems they want to solve, and generally to be more happy.

here is a thought experiment: what if increasing individual liberty, abolishing slavery, providing public education (etc) resulted in: mass pandemics, death, misery, and a collapse in the economy. would we see liberty & public education etc as morally good? i’d argue no.

if you read the bible (and, I presume most religious texts), you realize that much of it concerns very practical rules of life (how to build things, how to eat things etc), in addition to more abstract spiritual things … those “rules” are helpful for keeping a society functioning smoothly, and well, and helps us continue to solve problems we want to solve.

so while making “moral” choices is important, to me the compelling argument (in politics) is that “moral” choices are actually ones that tend to improve lives, and be effective. (i think this is part of why the religious right is so strong in the USA: our “free” (and empty) society has resulted in people being unhappy … and a set of moral rules (work hard, be honest, help others, be true to your wife etc) helps you get better at doing the things that, over the past 3000 years, have proven to help make people happier, on balance).

Much of this theory comes out of watching LibriVox evolve, where free-form anarchy is employed only to the extent that it helps us make audiobooks, and not for abstract reasons. so when we decide on issues, we measure against making audiobooks, and not against abstract notions of freedom etc. This, i believe, is how societies and morality develop over time…rules of behaviour that are “helpful” become codified as morally preferable traits: honesty, courage, kindness etc.

regarding democracy & political engagement, my personal feeling is that i can accomplish much more outside of the political system right now. the political system is very rigid (like academia). it’s “better” than fascism, but it could/should become even more responsive to people’s needs, i think, by adopting more small-a-anarchist approaches to problems. i believe eventually i might become re-engaged in the system, i hope in ways that help the democratic system start playing with some of these ideas, to see what could be helpful, and what not. that is, i do not believe anarchist projects are good because they are anarchist, but only if they can be proven to help people do things they want to do (manage a health system, education system, environment etc). is a perfect example of this: idea is: big groups of people with access to data over the net may be better at solving some problems than the government is, and the government should be responsive to exploring where these areas might be, and supporting movements/technologies/ideas that help bring decision-making tools into the hands of citizens, rather than keeping them in the rigid and compromised government systems as they exist now.

as for representative over direct democracy, again, i have no particular preference, except to the extent that one or the other can better address problems I see with the world; which includes protecting small groups from the abuse of big groups.

times they are a-changin’

Interpretation of the data is to be discussed, but the data itself is … astounding:

from Maurizio.