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robertogreco : debchachra   22

No one’s coming. It’s up to us. – Dan Hon – Medium
"Getting from here to there

This is all very well and good. But what can we do? And more precisely, what “we”? There’s increasing acceptance of the reality that the world we live in is intersectional and we all play different and simultaneous roles in our lives. The society of “we” includes technologists who have a chance of affecting the products and services, it includes customers and users, it includes residents and citizens.

I’ve made this case above, but I feel it’s important enough to make again: at a high level, I believe that we need to:

1. Clearly decide what kind of society we want; and then

2. Design and deliver the technologies that forever get us closer to achieving that desired society.

This work is hard and, arguably, will never be completed. It necessarily involves compromise. Attitudes, beliefs and what’s considered just changes over time.

That said, the above are two high level goals, but what can people do right now? What can we do tactically?

What we can do now

I have two questions that I think can be helpful in guiding our present actions, in whatever capacity we might find ourselves.

For all of us: What would it look like, and how might our societies be different, if technology were better aligned to society’s interests?

At the most general level, we are all members of a society, embedded in existing governing structures. It certainly feels like in the recent past, those governing structures are coming under increasing strain, and part of the blame is being laid at the feet of technology.

One of the most important things we can do collectively is to produce clarity and prioritization where we can. Only by being clearer and more intentional about the kind of society we want and accepting what that means, can our societies and their institutions provide guidance and leadership to technology.

These are questions that cannot and should not be left to technologists alone. Advances in technology mean that encryption is a societal issue. Content moderation and censorship are a societal issue. Ultimately, it should be for governments (of the people, by the people) to set expectations and standards at the societal level, not organizations accountable only to a board of directors and shareholders.

But to do this, our governing institutions will need to evolve and improve. It is easier, and faster, for platforms now to react to changing social mores. For example, platforms are responding in reaction to society’s reaction to “AI-generated fake porn” faster than governing and enforcing institutions.

Prioritizations may necessarily involve compromise, too: the world is not so simple, and we are not so lucky, that it can be easily and always divided into A or B, or good or not-good.

Some of my perspective in this area is reflective of the schism American politics is currently experiencing. In a very real way, America, my adoptive country of residence, is having to grapple with revisiting the idea of what America is for. The same is happening in my country of birth with the decision to leave the European Union.

These are fundamental issues. Technologists, as members of society, have a point of view on them. But in the way that post-enlightenment governing institutions were set up to protect against asymmetric distribution of power, technology leaders must recognize that their platforms are now an undeniable, powerful influence on society.

As a society, we must do the work to have a point of view. What does responsible technology look like?

For technologists: How can we be humane and advance the goals of our society?

As technologists, we can be excited about re-inventing approaches from first principles. We must resist that impulse here, because there are things that we can do now, that we can learn now, from other professions, industries and areas to apply to our own. For example:

* We are better and stronger when we are together than when we are apart. If you’re a technologist, consider this question: what are the pros and cons of unionizing? As the product of a linked network, consider the question: what is gained and who gains from preventing humans from linking up in this way?

* Just as we create design patterns that are best practices, there are also those that represent undesired patterns from our society’s point of view known as dark patterns. We should familiarise ourselves with them and each work to understand why and when they’re used and why their usage is contrary to the ideals of our society.

* We can do a better job of advocating for and doing research to better understand the problems we seek to solve, the context in which those problems exist and the impact of those problems. Only through disciplines like research can we discover in the design phase — instead of in production, when our work can affect millions — negative externalities or unintended consequences that we genuinely and unintentionally may have missed.

* We must compassionately accept the reality that our work has real effects, good and bad. We can wish that bad outcomes don’t happen, but bad outcomes will always happen because life is unpredictable. The question is what we do when bad things happen, and whether and how we take responsibility for those results. For example, Twitter’s leadership must make clear what behaviour it considers acceptable, and do the work to be clear and consistent without dodging the issue.

* In America especially, technologists must face the issue of free speech head-on without avoiding its necessary implications. I suggest that one of the problems culturally American technology companies (i.e., companies that seek to emulate American culture) face can be explained in software terms. To use agile user story terminology, the problem may be due to focusing on a specific requirement (“free speech”) rather than the full user story (“As a user, I need freedom of speech, so that I can pursue life, liberty and happiness”). Free speech is a means to an end, not an end, and accepting that free speech is a means involves the hard work of considering and taking a clear, understandable position as to what ends.

* We have been warned. Academics — in particular, sociologists, philosophers, historians, psychologists and anthropologists — have been warning of issues such as large-scale societal effects for years. Those warnings have, bluntly, been ignored. In the worst cases, those same academics have been accused of not helping to solve the problem. Moving on from the past, is there not something that we technologists can learn? My intuition is that post the 2016 American election, middle-class technologists are now afraid. We’re all in this together. Academics are reaching out, have been reaching out. We have nothing to lose but our own shame.

* Repeat to ourselves: some problems don’t have fully technological solutions. Some problems can’t just be solved by changing infrastructure. Who else might help with a problem? What other approaches might be needed as well?

There’s no one coming. It’s up to us.

My final point is this: no one will tell us or give us permission to do these things. There is no higher organizing power working to put systemic changes in place. There is no top-down way of nudging the arc of technology toward one better aligned with humanity.

It starts with all of us.

Afterword

I’ve been working on the bigger themes behind this talk since …, and an invitation to 2017’s Foo Camp was a good opportunity to try to clarify and improve my thinking so that it could fit into a five minute lightning talk. It also helped that Foo Camp has the kind of (small, hand-picked — again, for good and ill) influential audience who would be a good litmus test for the quality of my argument, and would be instrumental in taking on and spreading the ideas.

In the end, though, I nearly didn’t do this talk at all.

Around 6:15pm on Saturday night, just over an hour before the lightning talks were due to start, after the unconference’s sessions had finished and just before dinner, I burst into tears talking to a friend.

While I won’t break the societal convention of confidentiality that helps an event like Foo Camp be productive, I’ll share this: the world felt too broken.

Specifically, the world felt broken like this: I had the benefit of growing up as a middle-class educated individual (albeit, not white) who believed he could trust that institutions were a) capable and b) would do the right thing. I now live in a country where a) the capability of those institutions has consistently eroded over time, and b) those institutions are now being systematically dismantled, to add insult to injury.

In other words, I was left with the feeling that there’s nothing left but ourselves.

Do you want the poisonous lead removed from your water supply? Your best bet is to try to do it yourself.

Do you want a better school for your children? Your best bet is to start it.

Do you want a policing policy that genuinely rehabilitates rather than punishes? Your best bet is to…

And it’s just. Too. Much.

Over the course of the next few days, I managed to turn my outlook around.

The answer, of course, is that it is too much for one person.

But it isn’t too much for all of us."
danhon  technology  2018  2017  johnperrybarlow  ethics  society  calltoaction  politics  policy  purpose  economics  inequality  internet  web  online  computers  computing  future  design  debchachra  ingridburrington  fredscharmen  maciejceglowski  timcarmody  rachelcoldicutt  stacy-marieishmael  sarahjeong  alexismadrigal  ericmeyer  timmaughan  mimionuoha  jayowens  jayspringett  stacktivism  georginavoss  damienwilliams  rickwebb  sarawachter-boettcher  jamebridle  adamgreenfield  foocamp  timoreilly  kaitlyntiffany  fredturner  tomcarden  blainecook  warrenellis  danhill  cydharrell  jenpahljka  robinray  noraryan  mattwebb  mattjones  danachisnell  heathercamp  farrahbostic  negativeexternalities  collectivism  zeyneptufekci  maciejcegłowski 
february 2018 by robertogreco
Metafoundry 68: Specific Diseconomy
"ON LONDON: Not surprisingly, I’ve been asked a number of times to reflect on my experience in London. There were the minor details, like how signing for a credit card now feels like the past to me, chip-and-PIN like the present, and contactless still feels like the future (and I’m sad that the utility of contactless is severely compromised in the US because tips aren’t normally included in bills). Between the Brexit referendum fallout, the snap election, the Manchester and London Bridge attacks, and the Grenfell fire, it felt like an eventful and consequential six months in the UK. But what was most striking to me about living in London was how steeped the city is in colonialism and empire.

Most of my days in London were spent on a north-south axis that ran from Somerset House on the bank of the Thames (where I was working with design consultancy Superflux and with collaborators at King's College London), through Holborn where my gym was located, to University College London (established 1826, ending the four-hundred-year duopoly in English higher education held by Oxford and Cambridge, and to which King's was established in response), and the British Library. A friend of mine laughed at this, noting that my stomping grounds would be instantly recognizable to Victorians.

The walk from my gym to Somerset House (built at the end of the 18th century, and the administrative centre of England and its empire during the 19th century) took me past India House, opened in 1930 to house the administration for the subcontinent. It’s decorated with crests for different regions, and I found the one for the North West Frontier Province, where my parents were born and where my father lived until Partition, when his family relocated from newly-formed Pakistan to newly-reconfigured India, as part of what is likely to have been the largest migration in human history. Between my family history and my own life in Canada and the US, I describe myself as a British colonial four times over, which no doubt shaped my perspective. As well as the gorgeous administrative buildings, the Victorian public engineering that Britons take justifiable pride in was paid for out of the coffers of Empire. Bazalgette’s pioneering sewer system for London (built between 1859 and 1865) was an enormous public good paid for with public funds, because of the success of the imperial project, although it was almost more depressing to learn that it's since been privatized as Thames Water. Nearly half of Brits are proud of colonialism and think it was a good thing, and it inarguably was, if you’re British. Estimates by historians suggest that India accounted for about a quarter of the world’s economic output before 1700; a few years after Independence, it had dropped to less than 5%. Even the much-vaunted Indian railroads were primarily a moneymaking scheme for British companies, who maintained ownership and kept the profits, while Indian taxes backed the returns guaranteed to British investors.

I’m most familiar with India, because of my family history, but by far the most telling indicator of how colonialism transferred wealth away from local populations to England is to look at the list of former colonies: with only a few exceptions, the former colonies that are wealthy (like Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand) are the ones where the original inhabitants and societies were largely wiped out and supplanted by Europeans. The rest of the former Empire, the places where descendents of the original residents still comprise the bulk of the population, are desperately poor. Even if you don’t look at any other metric, this is still prima facie evidence for colonialism as an unprecedented transfer of wealth.

[I don’t think I go a day without thinking about how my family moved from one type of colony to the other, how that means that I grew up with all of the benefits of being on the right side of Empire, and that my society is built on a hill of skulls.]

I worked out of the Science Reading Room at the British Library, across the hall from the Asian collection. There was a large sign that read, “Learn more about your ancestors in India!” I was halfway through the small text before I realised, tipped off by the references to baptismal and pension records, that they didn’t mean my ancestors. On the Tube, I’d see ads for Las Vegas, ‘where your accent is an aphrodisiac’ (which is utterly absurd until you realize that it's a vestige of imperial propaganda); for the Crown Jewels, ‘Every stone tells a story’ (Prime Minister David Cameron refused requests to return the Koh i Noor diamond to India, on the grounds that if the UK ‘says yes to one, you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty’); for Fever Tree tonic water, ‘We go to the ends of the earth’ to find the quinine (tonic water was created in the early 19th century to make the antimalarial palatable to British officials stationed in Africa and India). In front of the Tate Britain, a bollard at the edge of the Thames indicates where ships would tie up to transport prisoners to Australia from Milbank Prison, which was torn down to build the museum. Outside London, Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry has an entire floor devoted to ‘Cottonopolis’ and how the industrial production of the region was the source of much of England’s wealth, in which there is literally one sentence about slavery and no mention of the destruction of the Bengali textile industry (nor the larger deindustrialization of India). I posted an excerpt about the word ‘pukka’ from a book about stepwells in India on my Instagram feed, and a stranger demanded to know where Jamie Oliver got the word from if it was Hindi. [While many of my examples are from India, other parts of the world have their own stories.]

If you've followed the links, you'll see that almost all of my citations are UK news outlets; it's not that there aren't lots of people in the UK who understand the full impact of colonialism. It's just that it's hard for me to understand how, if you've ever seen a list of famines in India under British rule, you could ever believe that colonialism was a good thing, or that it should be reflected in ads to sell me tonic water."

[See also: https://pinboard.in/u:robertogreco/b:dc6ff8124465

"[M]y society is built on a hill of skulls" is the most visceral expression of this particular truth that I've ever heard. https://twitter.com/debcha/status/911689430347415558 "
https://twitter.com/jkriss/status/911691879799865344

"Of course, my joke cortex goes straight for this: https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/things-this-city-was-built-on-besides-rock-n-roll "
https://twitter.com/jkriss/status/911695089134481408 ]" ]
debchachra  2017  london  colonialism  capitalism  india  uk  history  society  inequality  imperialism  england  canada  britain  britishempire  globalization  europe  globalsouth 
september 2017 by robertogreco
@debcha en Instagram: “I'm not really a souvenir person, but I did come home with some @transportforlondon swag—I think those are real line status magnets…”
"I'm not really a souvenir person, but I did come home with some @transportforlondon swag—I think those are real line status magnets, together with the ubiquitous hazard sign. The print amused me because I recently learned that the reason why the Tube is so hot in the summer is because a century and a half of dumping waste heat, particularly from braking, has raised the temperature of the clay surrounding the tunnels from a cool 15C to a toasty 25C, which makes it much harder to cool now."
debchachra  2017  london  trains  heat  clay  materials  science  subways  transportation  souvenirs  signs 
august 2017 by robertogreco
Gratitude for Invisible Systems - The Atlantic
"Before asking the question of how technology can affect democracy, I’m going to ask: What is democracy for?

In a developed, post-industrial country at the start of the twenty-first century, one of the main functions of a democratic political system is to help us collectively manage living in a complex, global society. Our daily lives take place in a network of technological, socio-technical, and social systems that we barely notice, except when things go wrong.

To start with, there are the infrastructural systems that fill out the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid of needs: clean water on tap, the ability to flush away disease-causing waste, natural gas for warmth and food preparation, and raw energy in the form of electricity, for heat and light, to replace physical labor, and to power cooling and electronics. Moving up Maslow’s pyramid, these systems underpin communication, community and self-actualization: connections to the rest of the world in the form of telecommunications and postal mail, physical links in the form of roads and a subway that link to rail, airports, and more.

While they’re far from perfect, these systems work well enough that mostly we don’t think about them. When they do fail, especially as a result of lack of care or maintenance (like interstate highway bridge collapses or the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan), we recognize it as the profound and shocking betrayal that it is.

Besides these physical networks, there are a host of other systems that exist primarily to contribute to the common good by taking on responsibility for safety, access and planning. I don’t have to know where my breakfast eggs came from to know they’re safe to eat, because of the United States Department of Agriculture. When I fill a prescription, the pills I’m given will be efficacious, thanks to the Food and Drug Administration. The Center for Disease Control tracks and responds to outbreaks before they become epidemics. I’ve been known to get on a plane and fall asleep before takeoff; my security is because the Federal Aviation Authority regulates air traffic. And these are just a handful of ways these systems affect my daily life.

When we think about caring for our neighbors, we think about local churches, and charities—systems embedded in our communities. But I see these technological systems as one of the main ways that we take care of each other at scale. It’s how Americans care for all three hundred million of our neighbors, rich or poor, spread over four million square miles, embedded in global supply chains.

What’s more, we can collectively fund systems that even the richest, most self-sufficient people couldn’t create for themselves, and we use them to serve the common good. When I look at my phone to decide if I need an umbrella, the little blue dot that says where I am is thanks to the network of Global Positioning System satellites operated by the United States Air Force, and the weather is the result of a $5.1 billion federal investment in forecasting, for an estimated $31.5 billion dollars of benefit in saving lives, properties, and crops (and letting me know I should wear a raincoat).

If I were to make a suggestion for how technology could be used to improve our democracy, I would want to make these systems more visible, understandable, and valued by the general public. Perhaps a place to start is with the system that is the ultimate commons—our shared planet. One way that we can interact with it is through citizen science projects: collecting data about our local environment to help build a larger understanding of of anthropogenic climate change. The late scientist and activist Ursula Franklin wrote “Central to any new order that can shape and direct technology and human destiny will be a renewed emphasis on the concept of justice.” If we want to use technology to make democracy better, we can start with the systems that we use to make it more just."
democracy  government  debchachra  2017  infrastructure  systemsthinking  visibility  invisibility  climatechange  technology  ursulafranklin  justice 
may 2017 by robertogreco
Maybe we're not afraid: on Edtech's inability to imagine the future - Long View on Education
"As people who argue for ‘de-growth’ know, we will end up in serious trouble if we mindlessly argue for creation and production as we imagine the future of paid labor and the unpaid work of reproduction.8There are serious environmental and equity issues at stake. While we have seen a huge push for equity through the movements to include girls in the STEM subjects (which is crucial work that we need to continue), Debbie Chachra points out a shortcoming to the one-sided emphasis behind getting “everyone access to the traditionally male domain of making”.
“I want to see us recognize the work of the educators, those that analyze and characterize and critique, everyone who fixes things, all the other people who do valuable work with and for others—above all, the caregivers—whose work isn’t about something you can put in a box and sell.”

Chachra’s concern comes to life in The World Economic Forum’s ‘Future of Jobs‘ report, which has almost nothing to say about care work, and as Helen Hester argues in her talk at the LSE, the “relative absence of care still registers as quite conspicuous in a study seeking to address something as encompassing as the ‘Future of Jobs’.”9

We should reject the whole ‘human capital’ metaphor and with it the racist and sexist legacy that defines technology along with productive value in the narrowest terms. In her conceptual critique of Becker’s human capital theory, Antonia Kupfer asks, “how could ‘productivity’ be measured in the increasing service sector such as care of elderly, counselling or management? In fact, productivity is highly culturally conceptualised and impacted.” Elevating all ‘creating’ above everything else, as Shirky does, damages our ability to think through our future.10
Maybe We’re Not Afraid: Technology in the Classroom

In his study of computer use in schools, Larry Cuban (2001) “found no evidence of teacher resistance” contrary to the popular mythology.11 Counter to Edtech’s idea that teachers fear technology, I propose a somewhat radical thesis: Perhaps it’s Edtech, not teachers, that lags far behind in its narrow discussion of technology. Rather than leading the way forward, Edtech is stuck in the past and irrelevant, especially to those of us who care about the intersection of technology and power.

Many of the top Edtech bloggers and tweeters, as ranked by onalytica.com, focus on products and branding, rather than pedagogy and power. In their praise, onlyanalytica.com writes that, “We discovered a very engaged community, with much discussion between individuals and brands, joining together in conversations looking to improve their quality of service.” It’s true, there’s an excellent relationship between individuals and brands like Apple and Google, which could be the exact reason that teachers find Edtech to be irrelevant.

Aside from the few who have consciously adopted a critical approach, most notably Audrey Watters, Neil Selwyn and the Digital Pedagogy group, the official Edtech journals and popular blogs almost never discuss the intersection of technology and power. Recently, both The British Journal of Educational Technology and Learning, Media, and Technology have featured editorials that acknowledge the shortcomings of Edtech and call for a new approaches.

So, what issues should Edtech be talking about instead of scared teachers and content creators? I would start with this short list:

– digital redlining
– the extent to which our ‘open’ society is really black boxed
– online harassment, especially as this relates to race and gender
– privacy in a world of Big Data
– digital labor
– media and propaganda
– profits and corporate agendas
– the supply chains that lie underneath ‘knowledge work’
– the increasing precarity of workers
– climate justice
– the ways that technology embodies ideologies, again, especially as this relates to race, class, and gender
– critical pedagogy

If we are really going to move education forward, then our philosophy of educational technology needs to keep pace with what people outside of the elite circles that worship the human capital ideology have been talking about for the last few decades. If we continue to praise creating and making, while undervaluing caring and repairing, we certainly won’t prepare kids for either the jobs or civic life of tomorrow."
edtech  benjamindoxtdator  2017  technology  education  pedagogy  debchachra  clayshirky  audeywatters  larrycuban  neilsilwyn  digitalpedagogy  production  consumption  care  caring  caretakers  makers  labor  capitalism  work  propaganda  climatejustice  power  precarity  economics  ideology  technosolutionism 
april 2017 by robertogreco
Making as an Act of Caring — Medium
"My friend Deb Chachra wrote a great piece ‘Why I am not a Maker’ in the Atlantic last year, about the problems with taking on the identity of a “maker”, especially in tech culture, as it assumes intrinsic superiority to other forms of repair, fixing and especially, care-giving. Around the same time, friend and collaborator Tim Maughan wrote about his journeys through Chinese factories, a deeply moving piece on the conditions and lives of the people who actually make most of the things we use. I believe that such critique that challenges the dominant understanding of the ‘maker culture’ and its implications on labour, geopolitics and consumerism is important and urgent.

On a personal front, Deb and Tim’s essays got me thinking a lot about what ‘making’ means to me, and I realised that my understanding of this term is coloured by Jon, whom I live and work with. It got me thinking about the amount of time and energy Jon spends ‘making’ things. It is the sort of making that requires him to find, forage, build or improvise tools and materials in order to make things work.

From quickly knocking up a set of ‘acrylic chisels’ from waste plastic pieces as a bespoke toolset for gilding, to building an enormous drone with his partner-in-crime Jon Flint, resurrecting his grandfather’s cherished lamp, fixing the neighbour’s bike, reconfiguring his mother’s phone, retrofitting his son’s electronic toys, creating a DIY bioreactor, applying ancient Japanese techniques of Kintsugi as a means of adding the history of repair to his bike, and most recently foraging the city for waste in order to build salvaged prototypes that might help mitigate the shock of climate change. But he is not trained as a carpenter, metalsmith, engineer, or product designer. Nor does he go to makerspaces, he probably feels bit overwhelmed by them. He is an artist and then a designer.

Most importantly, Jon is a maker because, over the years he has developed an uninhibited curiosity for found materials and their potential applications to either fix things or build new things in the future. This deep knowledge of materials embodied within the stuff we use in our daily lives, as well as the numerous tools and techniques of making, is critical to understand the impact the things we use have on our environments. It also generates a pattern of lateral and anticipatory thinking, as he constantly scours the environment looking for materials and tools, anticipating their potential (re)use in an entirely different context. It’s an attitude of mending, helping, and, most importantly, caring, that defies mainstream consumerism.

This sort of an attitude is neither new nor unheard of. There are hundreds of thousands of people who would not call themselves makers but would quite easily fit this bill of a ‘maker’. The recently visible projects by such makers include the brilliant Fixperts and Engineering at Home amongst others. These projects and activities are often packaged as ‘fixing’, ‘jugaad, or ‘up-cycling’, and remain on the periphery of the dominant maker-culture discourse. These approaches are often associated with resource stripped individuals and communities (especially Jugaad in India), or some sort of hippie do-gooders. No, they are not just fixing, not just doing some little bodging in the corner, they are mainstream makers. In fact, I would argue that they are more than makers, they are actually care-givers, who steadfastly push back against the dominant philosophy of planned obsolesce.

Maker-carers who may not use 3D printers to make shoes or dresses, but instead embody making as a way of life. They are quietly shaping the ethos and values of a 21st century maker — adaptive, crafty, anticipatory makers who care deeply about the people and environment around them. And this is the sort of making-as-caring that we need much more of. As we head towards increasingly precarious political, social and environmental crisis, we will all need to nurture the capacity to think through materials and the systems that these materials manifest within, so we can find the means to restore, revive, resurrect, rewire, and reimagine the physical world of consumption we are drowning in. Obviously this would mean we will buy less things, but it also means that we will know what we buy and mostly importantly have the skills to adapt and re-appropriate materials and tools for uncertain conditions.

If we are going to idolise makers and create large-scale foundries, incubators and educational programs to inculcate and embrace the love for making, then lets nourish this idea of making as care-giving too, and ensure that the ‘maker-culture’ we build is diverse and inclusive. And in doing so, encourage a relentless inquisitiveness, integrity, and pliancy that it can bring for us, those around us and the environments we live in."
anabjain  jonardern  making  care  caring  caregiving  repair  maintenance  2016  adaptivity  resourcefulness  sfsh  ingenuity  jugaad  consumerism  debchachra  timmanaugh  technology  climatechange  consumption  labor  geopolitics  reuse  recycling  superflux  jonflint  art  design  makers  openstudioproject  lcproject  repairing  mending  fixing  fixperts  engineeringathome  upcycling  makerculture  caitrinlynch  sarahendren  kintsugi 
july 2016 by robertogreco
Metafoundry 54: Nominative Determinism
"EPICYCLES:

[…]

Probably what I appreciate most about the holiday break is not commuting. When I started driving in suburban Boston, I almost immediately generated a working hypothesis about why dense urban areas tend to lean left politically and why suburban areas lean right (in my hometown of Toronto, there was a pronounced political divide between the city proper and the surrounding '905ers', named after the area code for the immediate suburbs). Living in a city teaches you that strangers can co-exist and even cooperate (like everyone standing aside to let subway passengers disembark, for example). But if you live in the suburbs, your primary interaction with strangers is almost certainly in your car, and cars are sociopathy machines: people do many things in cars (like cut into a line) that they would never do on foot. Driving in the suburbs sends the message that, given the opportunity, a significant fraction of people put their own interests first regardless of the effect on others, so it doesn't seem like a big step to deciding that you need political systems that do similarly to ensure that you don't lose out to the people around you. Whereas living in cities, especially ones with good public transit, make it clear that strangers can work together and that homophily is not a requirement for everyone to benefit from shared resources; hence, left-wing. Getting a few days' break from driving definitely helps me with that seasonal 'good will towards one and all' thing. [While we're into amateur theories of political sociology, I'm a fan of the zombie apocalypse vs utopian future [http://slatestarcodex.com/2013/03/04/a-thrivesurvive-theory-of-the-political-spectrum/ ] dichotomy.]

ON FRIENDSHIPS, SOCIAL MEDIA, AND HOUSING: Speaking of the suburbs, I was struck by this article [http://www.vox.com/2015/10/28/9622920/housing-adult-friendship ] on how American choices in land use affect their ability of adults to make and maintain friendships: the norms of single-family homes and driving mean that social interactions need to be deliberately scheduled (or, in many sad cases, not scheduled). The evidence is that there are two key requirements for friendships to form: repeated, spontaneous interactions, and an environment where people can confide in each other. There's been a lot of discussion in my circles recently about the modes and affordances of social media sites, and a quiet exodus from public Twitter to small private accounts, or to Slack, or to mailing lists, or to, yes, newsletters. For many of us, Twitter was--and remains--an excellent place for those repeated, spontaneous interactions. But it's shifted from the 'small world growth phase' [http://hlwiki.slais.ubc.ca/index.php/File:SNSPrivacy.png ] to one where our experience is dominated by context collapse [http://hlwiki.slais.ubc.ca/index.php/Context_collapse_in_social_media ]. It's therefore no longer a safe environment for that second component of a nascent friendship, sharing with others, as the norms of civil inattention [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_inattention ] fail to keep pace with the site's phenomenal growth (This was most memorably demonstrated to me when a well-known author and speaker jumped into a conversation that a friend of mine and I were having about relationships to inform us--and the rest of his many followers--that 'women like bad boys'. Welp.) So this type of trust-building personal sharing is moving to more private fora. In my case, because I travel a fair bit, that includes the offline world. This use of Twitter and travel probably goes a long way to explaining why I'm an outlier in that, while I have a few good friends that I made in and kept from my teens and early twenties, I also have a number of very close friends that I've made in the last five years or so (the second major reason is likely because I do live in a dense urban walkshed where I run into friends spontaneously, in a city that draws out-of-town friends to visit). But I'm interested in seeing how people use different types of social media differently in the near future."
debchachra  2016  friendship  socialmedia  twitter  cities  cars  suburbs  sociopathy  housing  thewaywelive  urban  urbanism  toronto  boston  commuting  sociology  politicalsociology  suburbia 
january 2016 by robertogreco
6, 55: Dilution of precision
"Some things are hard to understand until you’ve stood in them. Anthropologist Genevieve Bell (at 1:09, in the third video down) told executives at Intel how small living spaces in China could be, but when they went and stood in the places that she had described clearly, they were still surprised. “I can touch all the walls!”

Travel is a way of accumulating this embodied knowledge. Gazing up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Climbing up the passageway in the Great Pyramid at Giza. Standing in the shadow of redwoods. When we decided to take a weekend roadtrip in California, we really didn’t have to discuss what we’d go see: both of us have been thinking a lot about infrastructure and about the California drought, so we drew up a tentative plan, woke up early, and headed east from Santa Cruz towards Interstate Highway 5, to visit one of the most significant pieces of water infrastructure in California."



"Infrastructure is the set of systems that enable you to do what you do that you never think about. Power, water, heating, communications – all the things that (if you’re lucky enough) is just piped to your house – are never noticed until something goes wrong. As Warren Ellis put it this morning, “The victory condition [of utilities] is silence.” Then there’s the larger-scale infrastructure, like the highway system. We spent a lot of time on I-5, an economic backbone of the West Coast, running from Tijuana, Mexico to Blaine, Canada. But because it’s not in crisis, we don’t think about it much. We don’t take a weekend to stand on hills overlooking it. Likewise GPS, and stable currency, and mobile phone coverage."

[Also available here: http://tinyletter.com/metafoundry/letters/metafoundry-35-dilution-of-precision ]
perspective  infrastructure  2015charlieloyd  debchachra  2015  californiaaqueduct  california  water  californiastatewaterproject  agriculture  centralvalley  sanjoaquinvalley  sanluisreservoir  perception  scale  warrenellis  landscape  genevievebell  china  housing  i5  interstate5  i-5  food  farming 
may 2015 by robertogreco
Metafoundry 30: Confusion Matrices
"WE ARE THE DOOM SQUAD: In this fantastic interview for Rawr Denim, William Gibson talks about clothing and fashion: “There’s an idea called “gray man”, in the security business, that I find interesting. They teach people to dress unobtrusively. Chinos instead of combat pants, and if you really need the extra pockets, a better design conceals them. ...[T]here’s something appealingly “low-drag” about gray man theory: reduced friction with one’s environment.” That made me wonder: “What does a 'grey woman' look like?”, which made me think about how Deborah Tannen used the linguistics terms marked and unmarked to describe gender and clothing. Just as many English words are default male (unmarked), with a changed ending to connote female (marked; think 'actor' vs 'actress'), she argued that men's dress can be unmarked but women's dress is always marked. That is, there are decisions that men make about what they wear that are defaults, that aren’t even seen as a decision. In contrast, every decision that a woman makes about what she wears—heels vs, flats, pants vs, skirts, the length of a skirt and the height of a neckline, haircuts, jewelry—is freighted with cultural baggage. Take makeup. Especially in professional settings, for a woman, not wearing makeup is a noticeable, and notable, decision: marked. But for a man, not wearing makeup is not a decision—nobody notices when men aren't wearing makeup: unmarked. (Of course, a man wearing makeup is very marked indeed.)

Since I was a tween, I've been mostly wearing black clothes (with a bit of grey), no branding, minimal ornamentation, and simple lines. Right now, my wardrobe mostly consists of black jeans and trousers and a few skirts and dresses, t-shirts, hoodies, jackets (worn according to the formality of the event). Given the historically snowy weather in Boston this winter, some of my more technical outerwear and other clothing was folded into my regular wardrobe by necessity, which resulted in an aesthetic that a friend described as ‘cyberpunk Winter Soldier’. Contra Gibson’s description of Cayce Pollard Units, I’m not sure there are any women’s clothes that could have been unremarkably worn between 1945 and 2000; for a start, that my clothes are monochrome has been remarked on regularly since I was a teenager, not least because black has a long history of cultural connotations of its own.

The aesthetic choice to wear black that I made when my parents were still buying my clothes was cemented when I was an undergraduate and graduate student (almost all of my teens and twenties), because black clothes are an intensely practical choice when the phrase ‘disposable income’ is an oxymoron. I remember this Glenn O’Brien article in SPIN from 1985, in which (once you get past the casual homophobia and the implicit assumption that women are not reading it, and possibly not even sentient beings) he makes the case for that practicality—how black clothes don’t show dirt or damage much (useful when you can't easily afford to replace something if you spill coffee on it), and how they’re appropriate for a wide range of social settings. And all shades of black match, which is more than you can say for other colours. But what wearing black mostly meant to me was that I could make decisions about purchasing clothes and accessories on just one axis—functionality—without worrying about colour. When I gave talks at research conferences or went off to interviews for a postdoctoral position, I had exactly one purse and one pair of good dress shoes and one briefcase and I could still be guaranteed that I had a coordinated outfit.

The roots of the ‘Grey Man’ lie in the Great Male Renunciation: the period around the end of the 17th century, in the middle of the Enlightenment, when society collectively decided that men’s clothing, previously as colourful and ornamented as women’s, was to be dark, sober and serious. What’s kind of astonishing is how we've never really gone back—a quick scroll through red-carpet photos makes that clear—and how we mostly just accept this sexual dimorphism as the norm. Just why men's clothing has never returned to pre-GMR levels of finery is something I’ll leave to historians and sociologists, but it’s almost certainly related to the harsh enforcement of gender norms—while women can wear colours and clothing styles indistinguishable from men’s (as I write this, I’m wearing black jeans, a black t-shirt, and Camper high-tops), the slightest hint of femininity in men’s self-presentation elicits verbal abuse at best, and the worst is far worse.

I have more money to spend on clothes than I did as a grad student, so the quality of what I wear has gone up markedly (Fluevog Derby Swirls instead of steel-toed police boots from the surplus store), but what passes for my personal aesthetic has been pretty constant for two decades. Gibson talks about ‘reduced friction with one’s environment’, and that’s an element of how I dress: wearing a de facto uniform means that I spend very little time getting dressed in the morning, and makes it infinitely easier to pack for the frequent travel I do. Fran Lebowitz (who herself wears a gender-bending daily uniform) defends this move in a recent interview with Elle: “[T]here's nothing wrong in not caring. A man who doesn't care about what he looks like, he's applauded. We say, 'Oh, he's not superficial!'” My own personal Great Female Renunciation is tolerated in my professional environment of academic engineering. But, if you’re a woman, it’s almost impossible to eliminate the social friction around what you’re wearing: as Tannen noted, the way you dress is always perceived (and judged) by others, no matter how much you try to be unremarkable. You can turn this to your advantage: as Lebowitz puts it, “What's so great thing [sic] about clothes is that they're artificial—you can lie, you can choose the way you look, which is not true of natural beauty.” So while there isn't really a 'grey woman', you have more options for active camouflage. But, of course, most of us aren't super-sekrit agents, and this social scrutiny is always in action. It infuriates me when my female students are routinely asked if they have a date when they wear something other than a t-shirt and jeans, are told they are ‘too pretty’ to be engineers, or when my female academic colleagues are presumed, implicitly or explicitly to be less ‘serious’ if they are ‘too’ well put together.

I mostly think about the semiotics of what I wear in the same way that C.P. Snow is said to have described the three laws of thermodynamics: "You can’t win. You can’t break even. You can’t quit the game." There’s a reason why women care deeply about fashion—because it matters. Because it affects how literally everyone you encounter treats you. Given this, the depth of feeling in stories about wardrobes like those recounted in Sheila Heti’s Women in Clothes make more sense. I am acutely aware of the social and professional privilege that means I can opt-out of ‘dressing for success’ (I already have the job I want), although I’m certainly cognizant of what I’m leaving on the table by not paying much attention to style (for me, spending my time and money on other things is a fair trade; the value proposition is different for every woman) and that the specific way that I don't care about fashion is also a statement ('you can't quit the game'). It's common for men to demonstrate mild (or strong) disdain for how much women care about fashion or how much money women spend on clothes. But they are mostly just demonstrating a complete lack of awareness of a semiotic system that women are required to participate in, in order to accrue both economic and social benefits, which men are largely exempt from. "
debchachra  2015  uniforms  uniformproject  glvo  gender  clothing  howwedress  semiotics  williamgibson  caycepollard  color  daborahtannen  greyman  glenno'brien  franlebowitz  cpsnow  sheilaheti  womeninclothes  privilege  presentationofself  identity  freedom  signaling  pesonaluniforms 
march 2015 by robertogreco
Metafoundry 16: Fission-Fusion Society
"FEARLESS ASYMMETRY: Earlier this week, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Paul Graham wrote a short piece on about how successful people aren't mean, which—well, that’s surely a question of perspective. My daily commute to work takes me through a four-way stop in the affluent Boston suburb of Wellesley, so this is probably my favourite piece of research contradicting Graham's assertion. He also talked about how famous thinkers weren't ruthless, which I find an especially interesting example. Historically, one of the best things about academia, when it works well, is that it allows people to be intrinsically motivated [vid]: it provides them with sufficient income, security, and autonomy, as well as meaningful work—basically, it’s an environment where there is relatively little incentive to be mean. But it’s also worth noting that the idea of what constitutes ‘mean’ has changed appreciably over time, particularly in terms of how you treat people who are not like you: I recently re-read parts of Richard Feynman’s autobiography and some of his behaviour towards women, largely unremarkable at the time, is appalling by current standards.

But Graham and I do agree on the disutility of competition, which I cordially despise. I hate how it’s considered to be a motivating force, especially in education. I once asked ten STEM educators, from four continents, if they were motivated by competition themselves. Only two people said they were, both men. It’s possible that women are socialized to dislike competition, but it’s probably more an awareness of implicit bias, that most competitions they were likely to participate in were effectively rigged.

Apart from being an ineffective motivator for all but a few, my significant issue with competition is that it’s inefficient. By definition, in a competition, you are doing the same thing as other people. An enormous amount of effort is poured into leveling that playing field to absolutely ensure that everyone is doing the same thing. My issue with competitive spectator sports isn't that it’s pointless (it’s play; play is, by definition, pointless). It’s that it normalizes the idea that this ‘doing the same thing, only better’, should be valorized. By contrast, art is not fungible or directly comparable. This is why “It’s an honour to be nominated” is a cliché—being recognized for one’s work is lovely, but the concept of ‘winning’ at art is bolted on. Every comparison between works of art (painting, novels, and so on) is an apples-to-oranges comparison, not a level playing field. In casual conversation at a conference, a faculty member at another institution described himself to me as 'competitive', and I told him that I wasn't—that I was more interested in using the resources available to me to do new things, rather than doing the same thing as everyone else, only better (it's why I joined the faculty of a new college, where this is explicitly part of its mission). But that means I mostly do things that I am uniquely positioned or qualified to do, and—aside from that being a much more efficient use of my personal resources—it turns out that if you’re creating new playing fields, you are in a good position to convince other people (like funding agencies) that you know how to play on them. While Graham highlights how successful people like to create entirely new domains (hello, Apple), the impetus for doing so, at least in business, is usually to monopolize them (why hello again, Apple) rather than to open them up for other people to use. If your goal is to protect that new turf, having sharp elbows and sharper lawyers is certainly an advantage. By contrast, thinkers are often considered successful when they are influential—that is, precisely because they open up new spaces for others to explore.

Finally, I dislike competition because life is too short for zero-sum games. I've been thinking recently about the often-asymmetric nature of asking for favours. It wasn't until I was in my thirties that I got my driver's license and a car, which means I’m aware of the frequently quite significant difference in cost (in time more than money, but often both) between getting a ride somewhere and not. Offering someone a ride is often a positive-sum exchange: the cost to me of driving them is far less than the cost to them of making their own way. But it’s more than that: asking for and granting favours, even positive-sum favours, is an act of trust, and it helps to cement social bonds, in part because it’s not a one-to-one exchange of goods. Graham writes that, "For most of history, success meant control of scarce resources...That is changing." as if it were a natural progression with time, like stars leaving the main sequence. But to the extent that resources are non-scarce, and that positive-sum games are possible (and these characteristics are by no means uniformly distributed, even within the United States), it's a result of people--'successful' and otherwise--choosing to create a society where that's the case. The ability to be successful without being mean follows directly from this."
debchachra  2014  competition  paulgraham  motivation  economics  society  trust  winning  success  behavior  money  wealth  stem  gender  autonomy  income  security  academia  favors 
december 2014 by robertogreco
Metafoundry 15: Scribbled Leatherjackets
[Update 23 Jan 2015: a new version of this is now at The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/01/why-i-am-not-a-maker/384767/ ]

"HOMO FABBER: Every once in a while, I am asked what I ‘make’. When I attended the Brighton Maker Faire in September, a box for the answer was under my name on my ID badge. It was part of the XOXO Festival application for 2013; when I saw the question, I closed the browser tab, and only applied later (and eventually attended) because of the enthusiastic encouragement of friends. I’m always uncomfortable identifying myself as a maker. I'm uncomfortable with any culture that encourages you take on an entire identity, rather than to express a facet of your own identity (‘maker’, rather than ‘someone who makes things’). But I have much deeper concerns.

Walk through a museum. Look around a city. Almost all the artifacts that we value as a society were made by or at the the order of men. But behind every one is an invisible infrastructure of labour—primarily caregiving, in its various aspects—that is mostly performed by women. As a teenager, I read Ayn Rand on how any work that needed to be done day after day was meaningless, and that only creating new things was a worthwhile endeavour. My response to this was to stop making my bed every day, to the distress of my mother. (While I admit the possibility of a misinterpretation, as I haven’t read Rand’s writing since I was so young my mother oversaw my housekeeping, I have no plans to revisit it anytime soon.) The cultural primacy of making, especially in tech culture—that it is intrinsically superior to not-making, to repair, analysis, and especially caregiving—is informed by the gendered history of who made things, and in particular, who made things that were shared with the world, not merely for hearth and home.

Making is not a rebel movement, scrappy individuals going up against the system. While the shift might be from the corporate to the individual (supported, mind, by a different set of companies selling things), and from what Ursula Franklin describes as prescriptive technologies to ones that are more holistic, it mostly reinscribes familiar values, in slightly different form: that artifacts are important, and people are not.

In light of this history, it’s unsurprising that coding has been folded into ‘making’. Consider the instant gratification of seeing ‘hello, world’ on the screen; it’s nearly the easiest possible way to ‘make’ things, and certainly one where failure has a very low cost. Code is 'making' because we've figured out how to package it up into discrete units and sell it, and because it is widely perceived to be done by men. But you can also think about coding as eliciting a specific, desired set of behaviours from computing devices. It’s the Searle’s 'Chinese room' take on the deeper, richer, messier, less reproducible, immeasurably more difficult version of this that we do with people—change their cognition, abilities, and behaviours. We call the latter 'education', and it’s mostly done by underpaid, undervalued women.

When new products are made, we hear about exciting technological innovation, which are widely seen as worth paying (more) for. In contrast, policy and public discourse around caregiving—besides education, healthcare comes immediately to mind—are rarely about paying more to do better, and are instead mostly about figuring out ways to lower the cost. Consider the economics term ‘Baumol's cost disease’: it suggests that it is somehow pathological that the time and energy taken by a string quartet to prepare for a performance--and therefore the cost--has not fallen in the same way as goods, as if somehow people and what they do should get less valuable with time (to be fair, given the trajectory of wages in the US over the last few years in real terms, that seems to be exactly what is happening).

It's not, of course, that there's anything wrong with making (although it’s not all that clear that the world needs more stuff). It's that the alternative to making is usually not doing nothing—it's nearly always doing things for and with other people, from the barista to the Facebook community moderator to the social worker to the surgeon. Describing oneself as a maker—regardless of what one actually or mostly does—is a way of accruing to oneself the gendered, capitalist benefits of being a person who makes products.

I am not a maker. In a framing and value system that is about creating artifacts, specifically ones you can sell, I am a less valuable human. As an educator, the work I do is, at least superficially, the same year after year. That's because all of the actual change is at the interface between me, my students, and the learning experiences I design for them. People have happily informed me that I am a maker because I use phrases like 'design learning experiences', which is mistaking what I do for what I’m actually trying to elicit and support. The appropriate metaphor for education, as Ursula Franklin has pointed out, is a garden, not the production line.

My graduate work in materials engineering was all about analysing and characterizing biological tissues, mostly looking at disease states and interventions and how they altered the mechanical properties of bone, including addressing a public health question for my doctoral research. My current education research is mostly about understanding the experiences of undergraduate engineering students so we can do a better job of helping them learn. I think of my brilliant and skilled colleagues in the social sciences, like Nancy Baym at Microsoft Research, who does interview after interview followed by months of qualitative analysis to understand groups of people better. None of these activities are about ‘making’.

I educate. I analyse. I characterize. I critique. Almost everything I do these days is about communicating with others. To characterize what I do as 'making' is either to mistake the methods—the editorials, the workshops, the courses, even the materials science zine I made—for the purpose. Or, worse, to describe what I do as 'making' other people, diminishing their own agency and role in sensemaking, as if their learning is something I impose on them.

In a recent newsletter, Dan Hon wrote, "But even when there's this shift to Makers (and with all due deference to Getting Excited and Making Things), even when "making things" includes intangibles now like shipped-code, there's still this stigma that feels like it attaches to those-who-don't-make. Well, bullshit. I make stuff." I understand this response, but I'm not going to call myself a maker. Instead, I call bullshit on the stigma, and the culture and values behind it that reward making above everything else. Instead of calling myself a maker, I'm proud to stand with the caregivers, the educators, those that analyse and characterize and critique, everyone who fixes things and all the other people who do valuable work with and for others, that doesn't result in something you can put in a box and sell."

[My response on Twitter:

Storified version: https://storify.com/rogre/on-the-invisible-infrastructure-of-often-intangibl

and as a backup to that (but that doesn't fit the container of what Pinboard will show you)…

“Great way to start my day: @debcha on invisible infrastructure of (often intangible) labor, *not* making, & teaching.”
https://twitter.com/rogre/status/536601349756956672

“[pause to let you read and to give you a chance to sign up for @debcha’s Metafoundry newsletter http://tinyletter.com/metafoundry ]”
https://twitter.com/rogre/status/536601733791633408

““behind every…[maker] is an invisible infrastructure of labour—primarily caregiving, in…various aspects—…mostly performed by women” —@debcha”
https://twitter.com/rogre/status/536602125107605505

“See also Maciej Cegłowski on Thoreau. https://static.pinboard.in/xoxo_talk_thoreau.htm https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eky5uKILXtM”
https://twitter.com/rogre/status/536602602431995904

““Thoreau had all these people, mostly women, who silently enabled the life he thought he was heroically living for himself.” —M. Cegłowski”
https://twitter.com/rogre/status/536602794786963458

“And this reminder from @anotherny [Frank Chimero] that we should acknowledge and provide that support: “Make donuts too.”” http://frankchimero.com/blog/the-inferno-of-independence/
https://twitter.com/rogre/status/536603172244967424

“small collection of readings (best bottom up) on emotional labor, almost always underpaid, mostly performed by women https://pinboard.in/u:robertogreco/t:emotionallabor”
https://twitter.com/rogre/status/536603895087128576

““The appropriate metaphor for education, as Ursula Franklin has pointed out, is a garden, not the production line.” —@debcha”
https://twitter.com/rogre/status/536604452065513472

““to describe what I do as 'making' other people, diminish[es] their own agency & role in sensemaking” —@debcha”
https://twitter.com/rogre/status/536604828705648640

“That @debcha line gets at why Taylor Mali’s every-popular “What Teachers Make” has never sat well with me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxsOVK4syxU”
https://twitter.com/rogre/status/536605134185177088

““I call bullshit on the stigma, and the culture and values behind it that reward making above everything else.” —@debcha”
https://twitter.com/rogre/status/536605502805798912

“This all brings me back to Margaret Edson’s 2008 Commencement Address at Smith College. http://www.smith.edu/events/commencement_speech2008.php + https://vimeo.com/1085942”
https://twitter.com/rogre/status/536606045200588803

“Edson’s talk is about classroom teaching. I am forever grateful to @CaseyG for pointing me there (two years ago on Tuesday).”
https://twitter.com/rogre/status/536606488144248833

““Bringing nothing, producing nothing, expecting nothing, withholding … [more]
debchachra  2014  making  makers  makermovement  teaching  howweteach  emotionallabor  labor  danhon  scubadiving  support  ursulafranklin  coding  behavior  gender  cv  margaretedson  caseygollan  care  caretaking  smithcollege  sensemaking  agency  learning  howwelearn  notmaking  unproduct  frankchimero  maciejceglowski  metafoundry  independence  interdependence  canon  teachers  stigma  gratitude  thorough  infrastructure  individualism  invisibility  critique  criticism  fixing  mending  analysis  service  intangibles  caregiving  homemaking  maciejcegłowski 
november 2014 by robertogreco
Metafoundry 1: Black Start
"Last month, I was in San Francisco for a few days. Being in California, if you’re from the East Coast, just feels different, in a way that I've never satisfactorily articulated to myself, but then I find myself whooping when I first spot the Pacific Ocean as I cross the peninsula from SFO to Highway 1.

Part of it is a lifetime of living with the mythos of California. Quoting Charlie Loyd: "…California, America’s America: beautiful, dysfunctional, dominant, infuriatingly calm about itself, vastly more diverse and complex than even the best informed and most charitable outsider gives it credit for, built on bones, overflowing with demagogues, decadent, permanently reinventing itself."

But part of my experience of San Francisco, and Seattle and Vancouver, is that the underlying land shapes the city, rather than the city shaping the land. This is literally the case in Boston and New York, where the edges of the city defined by landfill, so all you are aware of in the city is the city. In San Francisco, the bones of the land are apparent in every direction you look, hills rising and falling and beyond them, the sea. The original grid of San Francisco was laid out for the dozen or so blocks of the settlement of Yerba Buena, and then as the city grew and grew the grid was just extended in all directions, heedless of the underlying topography—so today, the topography defines the paths through the city. Every San Franciscan I know thinks about the city in three dimensions—which routes to one’s destination involve the least climbing, the Wiggle, where the beautiful views are.

I miss Toronto, my hometown. I miss its unparalleled diversity. I know it’s not what was when I was growing up there, but I miss living in a place with a determined commitment to collectively making the lives of its residents better. When I was there in June, I found myself driving in an unfamiliar part of the city. The wide road was lined with modest but pleasant single-family homes, and every few blocks there was a small park and a school. Peace, order and good government. What I don’t miss from Toronto is the physical geography—the city sits on the fertile lowland between two rivers and, besides being on Lake Ontario, has virtually none to speak of. When I trained for a marathon in grad school, I would head due north up a major street for mile after mile, the road gently sloping upwards as I went away from the lake, which meant a gentle downhill as I returned home. That’s basically it. The city is defined by the city.

In contrast, when I miss Seattle, I miss the landscape. I miss seeing the Cascades and the Olympics on clear days, and I miss coming over a hill and seeing Puget Sound. But above all, I miss Mount Rainier. I still remember the first time I saw the mountain. I vaguely knew that you could see Rainier from the city, but I was completely unprepared when I turned a corner and saw this giant stratovolcano just looming. My relationship with the person I was in Seattle to see ended not long after, but I have yet to fall out of love with Rainier. Years later, I moved to Seattle to do a sabbatical at the University of Washington, which has a long quadrangle, the Rainier Vista, aligned with the mountain. For a year I walked past it every morning and evening, pausing on the days I could see the peak. Almost the last thing I did before returning to the quietly rolling New England landscape was to get a tattoo of Rainier on my ankle. The lock screen of my phone is a photo of the peak I took from a mountain meadow within the park.

Some Japanese immigrants to the area have called Rainier 'Tacoma Fuji', but Mount Fuji is known for its symmetrical cone, and part of the beauty of Rainier to me is its distinct asymmetry—the prominences on its flanks would qualify as mountains in their own right. I don’t suffer from Stendhal Syndrome in its traditional form, but there are a few places in the world where I have to work hard not to be physically overcome by beauty. One is the Marin Headlands, and the view over the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. Another is the east coast of Vancouver Island, looking over the Strait of Georgia towards Vancouver. And one is still pretty much every time I see Rainier. The beauty of San Francisco and of Cascadia is a wild beauty, the juxtaposition of human habitation and landscape, but one where the landscape holds its own. I was in Switzerland a few years ago, near Lausanne, and I've never been in a place that looked more like the tourist conception of the place. The mountains were high, sure, but the green velvet of pasture was spread high on their slopes, dotted with placid brown cows. The net result was one of pastoral domesticity, where the mountains were tamed. It was pretty, but it wasn't beautiful. The West Coast is beautiful.

But even before I set eyes on Rainier for the first time, I knew that it was dangerous. The primary risk isn't from a Mount St Helens-style eruption, but rather from lahars, the mudslides that would result when the heat from the eruption melts the glaciation on the peak. A hundred and fifty thousand people live nearby, in what appear to be gentle flat-bottomed river valleys but which are actually the paths of previous lahars. In 1985, twenty thousand people, including two-thirds of the population of Armero, Colombia, were killed by lahars resulting from the eruption of the Nevada del Ruiz volcano. Partly as a result of that tragedy, Rainier is the most instrumented mountain in the world, providing about forty minutes of warning to the nearest community, and schoolchildren there do volcano drills, fleets of school buses waiting to rush them out of the danger zone. The best estimates are that there’s a one-in-ten chance of lahar flows that make it as far as the Puget Sound lowlands within a human lifetime. And a repeat of the massive Osceola Mudflow, five thousand years ago, would send glacial mud as far as downtown Seattle, and cause tsunamis in the Sound and in Lake Washington.

The wildest of wild West Coast beauty: that Mount Rainier, the greatest physical threat to Seattle, is celebrated and beloved."
seattle  washingtonstate  2014  westcoast  landscape  mountrainier  cascadia  beauty  debchachra  toronto  california  vancouuver  britishcolumbia  charlieloyd 
september 2014 by robertogreco
Metafoundry 6: Accident Blackspot
"AGE OF NON-CONSENT: On my way home from the airport last week, I got into a cab that had a TV screen in the passenger area (as is now common in Boston and other cities). As I always do, I immediately turned it off. A few minutes later, it turned itself on again. That got me thinking about this amazing piece [http://modelviewculture.com/pieces/the-fantasy-and-abuse-of-the-manipulable-user ] by Betsy Haibel at Model View Culture, about ‘when mistreating users becomes competitive advantage’, about technology and consent (seriously, go read it; it’s more important that you read that than you read this). I had started thinking more about how technology is coercive and how it pushes or crosses the boundaries of users a few weeks ago, when I got a new phone. Setting it up was an exercise in defending my limits against a host of apps. No, you can’t access my Contacts. No, you don’t need access to my Photos. No, why the hell would you need access to my Location? I had to install a new version of Google Maps, which has crippled functionality (no memory of previous places) if you don't sign into Google, and it tries to convince you to sign in on every single screen, because what I obviously really want is for Google to track my phone and connect it to the rest of my online identity (bear in mind that the only objects that have have a closer average proximity to me than my phone does are pierced through bits of my body). Per that Haibel article, Google’s nagging feels exactly like the boundary-crossing of an unwanted suitor, continually begging for access to me it has no rights to and that I have no intention of providing.

This week, of course, provided a glorious example of how technology companies have normalized being indifferent to consent: Apple ‘gifting’ each user with a U2 album downloaded into iTunes. At least one of my friends reported that he had wireless synching of his phone disabled; Apple overrode his express preferences in order to add the album to his music collection. The expected 'surprise and delight' was really more like 'surprise and delete'. I suspect that the strong negative response (in some quarters, at least) had less to do with a dislike of U2 and everything to do with the album as a metonym for this widespread culture of nonconsensual behaviour in technology. I've begun to note examples of these behaviours, and here are a few that have come up just in the last week: Being opted in to promo e-mails on registering for a website. Being forced by Adobe Creative Cloud into a trial of the newest version of Acrobat; after the trial period, it refused to either run Acrobat or ‘remember’ that I had a paid-up institutional license for the previous version. A gas pump wouldn't give me a receipt until after it showed me an ad. A librarian’s presentation to one of my classes was repeatedly interrupted by pop-ups telling her she needed to install more software. I booked a flight online and, after I declined travel insurance, a blinking box appeared to 'remind' me that I could still sign up for it. When cutting-and-pasting the Jony Ive quote below, Business Insider added their own text to what I had selected. The Kindle app on my phone won’t let me copy text at all, except through their highlighting interface. When you start looking for examples of nonconsensual culture in technology, you find them absolutely everywhere.

Once upon a time, Apple was on the same side as its users. The very first iMac, back in 1998, had a handle built into the top of it, where it would be visible when the box was opened. In Ive’s words, ‘if there's this handle on it, it makes a relationship possible…It gives a sense of its deference to you.’ Does anyone feel like their iPhone is deferential to them? What changed? Part of it is what Ethan Zuckerman called ‘the original sin’ of the Internet [http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/08/advertising-is-the-internets-original-sin/376041/ ], the widespread advertising-based model that depends on strip-mining user characteristics for ad targeting, coupled with what Maciej Ceglowski describes as ‘investor storytime’ [http://idlewords.com/bt14.htm ], selling investors on the idea that they’ll get rich when you finally do put ads on your site. The other part is the rise of what Bruce Sterling dubbed “the Stacks” [http://www.well.com/conf/inkwell.vue/topics/459/State-of-the-World-2013-Bruce-St-page01.html ]: Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft. Alexis Madrigal predicted [http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/12/bruce-sterling-on-why-it-stopped-making-sense-to-talk-about-the-internet-in-2012/266674/ ], “Your technology will work perfectly within the silo...But it will be perfectly broken at the interfaces between itself and its competitors”, and that can only be the case if the companies control what you do both inside and outside the silo. And, finally, of course, our willingness to play ball with them—ie why I didn't want to sign into Google from my phone—has eroded in direct proportion to our trust that the data gathered by companies will be handled carefully (not abused, shared, leaked, or turned over). Right now, a large fraction of my interactions with tech companies, especially the Stacks, feel coerced.

One of the reasons why I care so much about issues of consent, besides all the obvious ones (you know, having my time wasted, my attention abused, and my personal behaviours and characteristics sold for profit) is because of the imminent rise of connected objects. It’ll be pretty challenging for designers and users to have a shared mental model of the behaviour of connected objects even if they are doing their damnedest to understand each other; bring in an coercive, nonconsensual technology culture and it doesn't take a lot of imagination to consider how terrible they could be. The day before Apple’s keynote this week, London-based Internet of Things design firm BERG announced that they were closing their doors (although I prefer to think of them as dispersing, like a blown dandelion clock). The confluence of their demise with Apple’s behaviour made me extra-sad, because BERG were one of the few companies that worked in technology that really seemed to think of their users as people. Journalist Quinn Norton recently wrote a fantastic piece on the theory and practice of politeness, "How to Be Polite...for Geeks" [https://medium.com/message/how-to-be-polite-for-geeks-86cb784983b1 ], which could just as easily be "...for Technology Companies". The Google+ 'real name' fiasco and Facebook's myriad privacy scandals could have been averted if the companies had some empathy for their users, and listened to what they said, instead of assuming that we are all Mark Zuckerbergs [http://dashes.com/anil/2010/09/the-facebook-reckoning-1.html ]. As well as laying down some Knowledge about Theory of Mind and Umwelt [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umwelt ], Quinn notes that politeness is catchy--social norms are created and enforced by what everyone does. I commute by car daily in Boston but I spent a year on sabbatical in Seattle. The traffic rules in Boston and Seattle are virtually identical, but a significant chunk of driver behaviours (in particular, the ones that earn Boston drivers the epithet of 'Massholes') are the result of social norms, tacitly condoned by most of the community. And driving is regulated a lot more closely than tech companies are.

I don’t know what it’ll take to change technology culture from one that is nonconsensual and borderline-abusive to one that is about enthusiastic consent, and it might not even be possible at this point. All I really know is that it absolutely won’t happen unless we start applying widespread social pressure to make it happen, and that I want tech companies to get their shit together before they make the leap from just being on screens to being everywhere around us."
coercion  culture  privacy  technology  consent  debchachra  2014  maciejceglowski  anildash  ethanzuckerman  jonyive  berg  berglondon  quinnnorton  google  apple  facebook  data  betsyhaibel  functionality  behavior  alexismadrigal  socialnetworks  socialmedia  mobile  phones  location  socialnorms  socialpressure  ethics  abuse  jonathanive  maciejcegłowski 
september 2014 by robertogreco
Metafoundry 4: Indicator Species
"Yesterday, Dan Hon wrote about the culture of the Silicon Valley start-up scene in his newsletter, under the heading “Not All…” It’s clear to me that Dan’s trying hard not to tar everyone in the tech industry with the same broad brush (I sympathize; both of us have friends in startupland) but it’s also clear that he’s finding something seriously amiss.

For me, the title itself was the giveaway. What Dan was describing was not just the actions of individuals, but of a system. It’s not so much that tech bros are bad in and of themselves, it’s that they’re a indicator species for an ecosystem. Like an algal bloom, their overabundance is a sign that the balance is amiss.

The Silicon Valley startup ecosystem depends on venture capital. If VCs are putting in money, they want to see a return (and a big one, because of the expectation that nine out of ten companies, at a minimum, will crash and burn). And they want to see it ASAP, because that’s how the time value of money works, and because companies are burning money like liquid hydrogen as they try to achieve lift-off. So there’s an enormous pressure on founders to produce, which inevitably selects for people who are prepared to sleep under their desk for the chance of having a breakout company (and, not incidentally, making an enormous return for their VCs, who are presumably sleeping soundly in their nice Design Within Reach beds). The system doesn’t select for women, for people who have families or lives outside of work, for thoughtful people. And by not selecting for them, it actively pushes them out, creating a culture that rejects and is intolerable for them (witness the much-documented sexism and ageism of tech culture). On top of all that, we as a culture socialize boys to be over-confident in themselves and to be deeply messed up about gender, and then there's the Dunning-Kruger effect, and then we give them a bunch of money. So it’s not surprising that tech bros (or be both more precise and less ad hominem, techbro behaviors) come out of this system.

But there’s more to it. What makes a startup a startup isn’t that it’s new (we call that a ‘small business’), it’s that it grows rapidly, ideally exponentially. That pushes startups toward bits, not atoms (near-zero incremental cost), towards anything that leverages Metcalfe's Law, towards dark patterns of nonconsensual behaviour towards users (like strip-mining Contacts lists), towards eroding user privacy, to dumping everything users have created when the startup is acquihired, and towards falling back on invasive online advertising because having a viable business model was a distant second to growing a user base.

And of course, most people building startups are mediocre, in the way that we humans are generally mediocre: we are greedy, solipsistic, unaware of our implicit biases. But putting all these pieces together, we have a system that selects for, supports, and nurtures socially hostile techbro behaviors, that solves techbro problems and alienates everyone else. And so the people who display these behaviors thrive. But I certainly know smart, thoughtful, committed people who are doing worthwhile, interesting, and ethical work in startups. I have friends in companies like Mapbox, Threadable, Keyboardio, and The Echo Nest, and they are working and succeeding in tech culture despite it being a system that's stacked against people like them, in exactly the same way that (go figure) women who succeed in tech do so despite the structural barriers in place. And just like the women in tech that I know, I can see them struggle and pay the costs of trying to succeed in that system.

Coda: I sent my original rant to Scott Smith; having just returned from a trip to Silicon Valley with his family, he responded to me in an e-mail by talking a bit about how some parts of this cultural systems are visible even to outsiders.

This take is doubly interesting because I've just come back from a few days in SV, the last 48 hours of which were largely spent taking our kids around the Valley (including taking a half day to drive them around Google, Facebook and Apple HQ campuses) to see what it really looks like day-to-day. And spending time with my teenage daughter in particular, asking her what she saw—the people (the lack of women), the postures, the environments. She picked up right away that it was a lopsided culture. And we spent time discussing about how the power flows there, who has it, and what impact they are having on SF as a city, and on the world. We watched the Google buses pick up and drop people off, took in locals’ interactions in cafes and restaurants, and walked into the store at Apple’s main building to see new recruits (and tourists) shopping. This part of the trip wasn't really planned in advance—Susan and I just decided it would be an interesting experience once on the ground—to show the kids the other end of the pipe, so to speak, and give them an idea who is making things “for them” that shape their social and economic expectations and interactions."
debchachra  siliconvalley  scottsmith  technology  2014  startups  systemsthinking  ecosystems  echochambers  vc  gender  power  money  google  facebook  apple  sanfrancisco  economics  society  labor  influence  policy  politics  californianideology 
august 2014 by robertogreco
Art Rant #1 (with tweets) · tezcatlipoca · Storify
"there will always be artists and good art, but the mono culture provided a shared "enemy," some common ground and a vocabulary" — https://twitter.com/tezcatlipoca/status/265090655720718336

"I think I want a "show and tell…" a distilled collection of contemporary things people really love and why." — https://twitter.com/tezcatlipoca/status/265099091153928192

"This thought is drifting from original now, but everyone has a favorite song, lyrics that make them cry... How can we make work like that? Not just "oh cool, another arduino demo" … I WANT TO MAKE MY AUDIENCE WEEP." — https://twitter.com/tezcatlipoca/status/265094066310615040 + https://twitter.com/tezcatlipoca/status/265094216605130753 + https://twitter.com/tezcatlipoca/status/265094257549914113

"I actually think novels are way better than music at being meaningful, yet emotional, and building communities." — https://twitter.com/debcha/status/265096111939792896
glvo  emotions  novels  monoculture  writing  eleanorsaitta  storify  culture  media  reaction  music  art  2012  andrewsempere  debchachra 
november 2012 by robertogreco
Debbie Chachra’s letter to her teenage self « Science Club for Girls
"You’ve registered to take auto shop and electrical shop at your new school in the fall. I hate to say this, but the classes are kind of going to suck.

"I hate to say this, but the classes are kind of going to suck. You’ll be the only girl in both…"

You’ll be the only girl in both, and the boys are going to give you a hard time, and the teachers aren’t going to notice or care."

"It’s not going to be the best of experiences, but I want you to hold onto how much you love making stuff."

"There’s a distinctive pleasure to holding something that you’ve made, and you’ll get a tremendous confidence boost from it – it’s the difference between, “I’m not sure,” and “Of course I can.”"

"But let me tell you – the future is pretty awesome. … ou will not believe what I’m holding in my hand right now…"
teens  adolescents  adolescence  history  letterstoself  letters  past  srg  learning  making  science  girls  1984  2010  debchachra 
october 2012 by robertogreco
Border Town
"I’ve always loved that the ethnic neighbourhoods in Toronto aren’t just informal constructs. The street signs that mark neighbourhoods send a paradoxical but clear message: We are all strangers here. We all belong here."
bordertown  borders  neighborhoods  ethnicneighborhoods  strangers  immigrants  immigration  canada  toronto  2011  debchachra 
october 2012 by robertogreco
AA SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE - Lectures Online: Thrilling Wonder Stories 3 (3 of 3)
"We have always regaled ourselves with speculative stories of a day yet to come. In these polemic visions we furnish the fictional spaces of tomorrow with objects and ideas that at the same time chronicle the contradictions, inconsistencies, flaws and frailties of the everyday. Slipping suggestively between the real and the imagined these narratives offer a distanced view from which to survey the consequences of various social, environmental and technological scenarios.

Thrilling Wonder Stories chronicles such tales in a sci fi storytelling jam with musical interludes, live demonstrations and illustrious speakers from the fields of science, art and technology presenting their visions of the near future. Join our ensemble of mad scientists, literary astronauts, design mystics, graphic cowboys, mavericks, visionaries and luminaries for an evening of wondrous possibilities and dark cautionary tales."
mattjones  vincenzonatali  liamyoung  brucesterling  andylockley  philipbeesley  christianlorenzscheurer  charlietuesdaygates  roderichfross  naturalroboticslab  gavinrothery  gustavhoegen  radioscienceorchestra  spov  zeligsound  geoffmanaugh  bldgblog  harikunzru  chriswoebken  davegracer  simoneferracina  jaceclayton  lindsaycuff  nettle  andrewblum  jamesfleming  davidbenjamin  thrillingwonderstories  scifi  sciencefiction  art  technology  julianbleecker  storytelling  designfiction  2011  kevinslavin  towatch  debchachra 
november 2011 by robertogreco

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