Apr 30 2014

What I learned at Build Peace, the first conference for technology and conflict resolution

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The organizers of Build Peace tell me it was the first conference specifically on peace and technology, and they should know. I don’t know the peace building field very well, but I could see that some of its leading lights were in attendance. I learned quite a bit, and I am very glad I went.

I have to start by saying I don’t think “technology for peace” is a sure win. My understanding is that peace building is incredibly difficult work, and rarely truly successful, and I don’t see why technology necessarily changes that. Yet I am also a technologist and I presented some of my own data-driven peace work at the conference. Clearly I believe it might be good for something.

There is a great need for conversations between capable conflict resolution workers and thoughtful technologists — hence this conference. Here are some of the things I think I learned.

 

Try existing social networking platforms first 

In the 5-minute long ignite talks I watched speaker after speaker present their work on “online discussion platforms,” “spaces for dialog,” and “peaceful online interaction.” Increasingly, I was bothered by a simple question: what do existing social media platforms lack for peace-building uses?

On the assumption that cross-cultural dialogue is key to peace (more on that below) the Internet seems to hold infinite potential, if we can just get people talking to each other the right way. This simple logic drives the explosion of online experiments. Which is great. But I rarely heard anyone talking about what makes one platform better than another — and if we don’t know what a peaceful platform should look like, why not just use Facebook?

This is what The Peace Factory does. The concept began with a Facebook page called Israel Loves Iran and quickly spawned other “X loves Y” pages which have reached millions of people. It progressed to the Friend Me 4 PEACE program which encourages people to friend someone from “the other side.”

Founder Ronie Edry described the logic:

People ask me, “Why would I ‘friend’ someone from Ramallah? What would I say?” Nothing. But you’ll see their stupid selfies in your feed.

Will selfies bring peace? I don’t know. They do seem humanizing, which is probably important. Also there is a natural escalation channel on Facebook, towards greater interaction and engagement. But what I really like about this work is that the experiment is cheap and easy to replicate.

It has become a staple of the crisis mapping community that crowdsourced crisis response must rely on already-deployed technology, not on crisis-specific apps. No one is going to install your app when the network is down and they can’t find their family. Similarly, do you really want to be in the position of convincing people involved in a civil war that they should switch social networks? My sense is, let’s find out where Facebook etc. fall short as a peace platform, before we go attempting to build an alternative – and get masses of people to use it, which is even harder than building it!

 

Do No Harm

One of the most significant things I learned about is the existence of a Do No Harm movement within peace and conflict work. This seems like a basic principle when working in a dangerous area, but its articulation is surprisingly young. I was referred by multiple people to the 1999 book by Mary B. Anderson. The book has spawned a sub-field both academic and practical.

I haven’t read the book, so I can’t claim to understand the details. But the powerful idea that well-intentioned peace builders might make matters worse will stay with me.

 

Online interaction done right

Waidehi Gilbert-Gokhale of Soliya gave one of the most impressive presentations at the conference. Like a lot of other projects, Soliya aims to build peace through online discussion. Unlike a lot of other projects, Soliya can articulate why conversation alone is not enough. In Gilbert-Gokhale’s words: “unmoderated chat polarizes.” Here she is referencing a wide body of work that shows that bringing people with conflicting opinions together to talk can actually reinforce pre-existing divisive beliefs, not moderate them.

 

Soliya sees their online cross-cultural interactions as a new form of “exchange” program and even calls their new platform Exchange 2.0. Online interactions typically take place in a school setting, which gives teachers the chance to moderate and guide the discussion.

Most interestingly, Soliya seems serious about knowing whether any of this works — aka evaluation. Gilbert-Gokhale said,

The biggest thing we have to do is run control groups. Without that we have no validity to our findings.

And I love her for saying that. To me, this emphasis on evaluation seems way ahead of everyone else doing dialog programs — even though Soliya’s evaluations to date don’t seem to include a control group. Soliya also has produced is a lengthy 2009 report “covering the past 60 years of research into the impact of media on attitudes and behavior.” Certainly worth checking out!

That report also includes some very interesting neuro-imaging studies of conflict by Emile Bruneua of MIT, who also spoke at the conference. Brunuea has shown that our brains react differently when considering the suffering of members of an in-group versus an out-group. This is remarkable; however I have not included the pretty brain scan images because I know that brain scan images are very persuasive, whereas this work is very young. It’s a promising line of research, but it has not been reproduced by other researchers and it’s not clear how you might use it in the field. Evaluation of peace work is never simple.

 

Measurement and evaluation are key

I suspect that most peace building efforts don’t end up helping very much, and all the experienced peace workers I’ve spoken to agree. If this seems harsh, consider that there are good reasons to believe that much international aid is ineffective, and quite plausibly that a wide range of non-profit work in general is ineffective. Preventing or resolving violent conflict is probably even harder than those things.

There seems to be very little solid evidence that conflict resolution work does any good at all — certainly not anything up to the standards of a controlled study, because you can’t really do a controlled study in conflict areas. You go in and try to stop the violence because not attempting to stop it would be unethical (assuming, of course, you Do No Harm.) Then the violence diminishes or it does not. But there is no counterfactual to compare against. That is, we don’t know what would have happened had we done nothing.

It was my favorite session, and well-attended too, though much of the younger, hipper set seemed to be elsewhere. That saddens me. If we can’t figure out what works and what doesn’t we have nothing at all. If we can figure out how to do good evaluation then we can learn.

I came away with several big ideas from the evaluation working group.

First, control groups might be nice but qualitative explanations count! Say you held a bunch of mediation sessions between community leaders in different communities. Then the conflict seemed to settle down. You theorize that it was your work organizing these meetings that caused things to get better. Are you right?

Sometimes people who practice ethnography and other qualitative research methods get into arguments with data people about what can be learned from only one specific case, only one historical experience. I experienced this at the conference in the conversations around metrics and data. Personally I believe that the well developed theory of causation says you can’t know the magnitude of a causal effect unless you have lots of cases, divided between control and non-control groups. But obviously being in the time and place of a conflict and trying to shape it can teach you something deep about what happened. The question is, what?

I learned during this session that there’s a whole body of knowledge about this kind of single-case causation analysis under the name of process tracing. For example, you need to test your proposed explanations against historical facts, and certain types of tests provide more evidence than others, and in fact there’s a whole theory of case study selection and inference. See also analysis of competing hypotheses, developed in intelligence work, which I now see as closely related. Process tracing won’t get you results equivalent to a large number of controlled cases, but you can get immensely valuable knowledge anyway, and it will be even better than statistical analysis in certain ways.

But suppose you really need the kind of evidence that only a controlled study can provide, such as estimates of the magnitude of your effect (also estimates of the uncertainty in your estimates, which can be just as important.) I learned that there are several different controlled designs that might work in peace building. Instead of comparing against doing nothing, you could compare against doing something else. You can do the same thing in different places (say, different villages) at different times, and look for a time correlation, which is called a stepped wedge design. Or you do the program only in places where some metric of need is above a certain threshold, which is called a regression discontinuity design.

Effectiveness is important for many reasons, one of which is that there are many more things that could be done than there is funding to do them. So someone has to make hard choices, and effectiveness has to be a key factor.

But the biggest idea I took from the measurement workshop is that even this seemingly airtight logic is suspect, because peace programs so very often end up doing something completely different from what they set out to do! The reality of conflict assures that. It does no good to charge in with an evaluation strategy that measures the wrong thing… and maybe you can only know if you’re measuring the right thing after you’ve started the project.

In other words, learning on the ground might (and probably should) convince you that your goal should change. I was delighted to discover that this idea of questioning your goals as you move toward them has a name: double-loop learning.

 

Open and closed, the crowd and the authorities

There was a fundamental tension at the conference between open and closed approaches to peace. If you like, there were two narratives about how projects were constructed. Some speakers presented about explicitly open projects (“Peace is everyone’s business: Mass SMS to prevent violence.”) Other projects involved a small group of outsiders working with existing authorities (“Elections data for the people in transitioning MENA countries.”) And more than a few projects have chosen to keep their data completely private, to prevent their human sources from coming to harm.

Is the future of technology-enabled peace building open or closed? I think both. There is great potential for open, flattened, peer-to-peer projects because ultimately it is people who must be at peace, not their governments. But not all processes can include all people, for some very good reasons. Even a “consensus” processes almost always has to exclude someone, either for logistical reasons or to deal with spoilers. Quinn Norton’s scathing dissection of Occupy Wall Street’s General Assembly is a beautiful example of the failure of an open system.

Because the [General Assembly] had no way to reject force, over time it fell to force. Proposals won by intimidation; bullies carried the day. What began as a way to let people reform and remake themselves had no mechanism for dealing with them when they didn’t. It had no way to deal with parasites and predators.

Of course I’m not arguing that we are currently at ideal levels of openness, either for peace building projects or anything else. Just that the ideal is some careful hybrid.

 

Visualizing Polarization

I have done a little bit of work on data-driven ways to understand conflict, which stems from my interest in visualizing communities. It’s possible to see the political divisions of the U.S. population in many different types of data: political book sales, who talks to who on Twitter, geographical voting patterns, and more. My own contribution to this is an interactive visualization of the gun control debate on Twitter from one week in February 2013, published in The Atlantic. In that visualization, which shows “people who Tweeted this link also tweeted that link,” you can clearly see that there are two poles of thought on the matter, led by (for this particular week of Twitter conversation) the White House on one side and The Blaze on the other.

Here are the slides I showed at the beginning of the session, which became a very lively group discussion (yay!)

Polarization Build Peace 2014

Click to see my slides for this session

It’s striking to me that conflict dynamics show up so clearly in big data visualization… but I’m really not sure how helpful that is, if your concern is peace. Yes, plots like these could help in conflict analysis, but anyone who’s actually paying attention to a conflict already knows who the sides are. A more interesting possibility is a time-based analysis where you animate these association patterns through time, to see if anything is changing. This type of network analysis could also be used just as marketers use it, to identify influential people and groups for the purposes of media planning.

Various people including myself suggested that maybe peace builders should look at these networks to find people who bridge between the sides. But Ethan Zuckerman made a very interesting counter-suggestion: maybe we need to look outside of the conflict divisions entirely, to find completely unrelated identities that many people can agree on. He pointed to the Harry Potter Alliance, which was founded to address the conflict in Sudan.

Location data might help us to find bridging spaces, literally spaces in the physical world. Mobile phone companies have location history for each subscriber, so it should be possible to figure out a) which “side” each person is on by where they travel and who they associate with and b) where people from the two sides come together. What if we discover that otherwise mortal enemies drink in the same bar every Friday night? Is that useful? Does it violate privacy in that creepy location-data way if we just know the name of the bar, not the names of the people who go there? I have no answers.

I am awed by the potential for data in peace work, but I am also very cautious. Technologists tend to get lost in technological fantasies, while peace workers may not have the technical imagination to see what is possible. If my experience bringing computer science to journalism is at all typical, then we have lot of work to do to bridge this gap.

 

A young field with a lot to learn

I’ve been hanging around  journalism innovation and crisis mapping and ICT4D and related things for six years now, which is (surprisingly?) long enough to see several generations of projects come and go. I feel like peace technology is currently making some of the classic mistakes: people are making without considering what already exists, technologists with no knowledge of peace building are going to suck at understanding user needs, and there’s not really any talk of tech project sustainability.

But I am also elated. This conference was a unique confluence of enthusiasm, expertise, and experiments. It has made me optimistic that if there there is a role for technology and technologists in peace building, we will find it. It will probably take a few more years for all of it to settle down into useful practices. I certainly came away with some things to try — and I’d go on that data scientist conflict zone exchange program in a heartbeat. Or at least back to Build Peace next year.

 

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Sep 28 2011

Learn to program, then and now

Learning to program a computer is hard. While you can learn to make useful things in a few months, mastery may take a decade. It’s not like learning to bake a cake or shoot a video. It’s more like learning to play a musical instrument. It takes years of practice to get really good — or in the programmer’s case, tens of thousands of lines of production code. Meanwhile, you’re going to make the neighbors’ ears bleed.

Why would anyone do this? I think the reasons people invest such insane amounts of time in such a specialized skill are shifting. And I think that shift is healthy. It’s a shift in what it means to be a technologist. And the culture of our technical communities is shifting with it.

Back then
I learned to program in high school, early 90s. Looking back, I think my formative experiences as a technologist were pretty typical for my generation of programmers. I had three or four close friends in high school who also liked computers. They were all male. This was the dawn of the internet, around the time of the very first web browsers, and long before the first tech bubble made geeks into rich visionaries. We were not remotely cool. Technical information was somewhat harder to come by than today, but not excessively so. My first C++ compiler shipped in a big box which included a thick paper reference manual and a really nice language tutorial. We subscribed to Byte and Doctor Dobbs’ Journal. We hacked on stuff at lunch time and after school and weekends, and traded shareware on floppies. The technology was different, but the substance of the experience was much the same as today. We spent a lot of time at the computer, and we were well-connected into a community of like minded people. The community provided technical help but also motivation and inspiration.

We weren’t trying to change the world.  We were driven by an intense curiosity about the inner workings of machines, and we wanted to be admired for being good at something. I wrote the Windows port of Netrek, one of the very first multiplayer online games, and the local geeks knew who I was when I arrived at the University of Toronto. This kind of experience persisted through my undergraduate years studying computer science. Long nights in the computer lab; cool hacks. There’s a wonderful book which captures this culture as it evolved starting in the late 1950s.

Enter women
There were no women in the communities where I learned to program. Or, almost none. I did a head count in one of my classes: four out of 150 students. Sadly, this kind of ratio persists today in many technical fields. I didn’t really know why this was. Us nerdy boys would have welcomed geeky girls. For all sorts of the right and wrong reasons.

It’s only in the last few years that I’ve started to understand why the dominant nerd culture drove women away in droves. Simply put: it was a club full of very poorly socialized boys, and our peer-based motivation was all about status. We all wanted to be the alpha geek. We would jump all over each other to point out errors. We would never miss a chance to demonstrate our superior, elegant technical minds. We were completely insufferable to anyone else.

Fortunately, there are now more women in tech. And they’re starting to tell their tale. While I don’t want to generalize too much from the experiences of a single person, I found the account of Rebekah Cox to be really enlightening (there are lots more great stories in the same thread):

So, if you enter this environment as a woman without any sort of agenda or understanding of this culture the first thing you find is that if you actually say something the most likely reaction is for a guy to verbally hit you directly in the face. To the guys this is perfectly normal, expected and encouraged behavior but to women this is completely out of nowhere and extremely discouraging.

As a technical woman, this is your introduction and the first thing you have to learn is how to get back up and walk right back into a situation where the likelihood of getting punished for participating is one. How you choose to react to this determines the rest of your career in technology.

Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. It wasn’t all one-upmanship and verbal assaults. These geek scenes could also be wonderfully supportive, and often served as social groups too. You have to remember that this was before computers were cool, and it was an awkward adolescence when you were interested in things you couldn’t begin explain to anyone else. Also, it was a great learning environment. Cox again:

Even the aforementioned nerd trash talk is actually a useful tool that can help you. The reason that culture exists is to make everyone in the group better. The fact that you are getting hit in the face means that someone is either wrong and you can hit back with a correct answer or that you are wrong and someone is letting you know that directly. Sticking that out means you are learning in an accelerated environment with instant correction.

Furthermore, if you stick around long enough, you can find people who aren’t completely insecure and are confident enough to not resort to insults to assert themselves. Those people make the tough environment actually tolerable. If you can help each other then you can establish a safer zone to talk through ideas. And since those more secure people are typically so secure because they are really, really good, you can find yourself in an informational jet-stream.

In this artificial high-pressure environment we got good fast. But it was certainly off-putting to women, and not just women. Lots and lots of people wanted no part of this, and for good reason. Yet for quite a long time it was these sorts of socially dysfunctional communities that produced the lion’s share of the best technologists.

Why program?
Learning to program is still ridiculously hard, and still requires a community of practice. And it still requires an absurd focus and motivation. But the sources of that motivation are broadening. I’ve been watching this shift for a while. The notion of programming for the social good has even crystalized into institutions such as Random Hacks of Kindness (for international development), Hacks/Hackers (for journalists), and Code for Amercia (civic platforms.) For that matter, there’s Wikipedia. There are services and data all over the web. We don’t have to wonder whether software can change the world — it already has!

So by my old-school standards, the burgeoning hackers of today are very applied. I grew up desperately curious about the insides of things. Many of the programmers getting started now are far more extroverted than that. Here’s MIT Media Lab fellow Lisa Williams:

I want to learn to code because a lot of things piss me off.  

I believe a program can stand in opposition to Things That Suck, just like a documentary, a work of art, or a protest march.

I wanna code because SHIT IS BROKEN.  I want to code because corruption is realbecause people are getting thrown out of their houses, because veterans aren’t getting what they deserve, because racism is real and has real effects, because yes it does matter when you cancel a bus linebecause it’s really hard to shut a computer program up, because you can’t say it’s an isolated incident when there’s a bigass Google Map in your face showing you it’s not.

This is Lisa demanding “computational journalism.” But pretty much every field of human endeavor uses lots and lots of software now. Software not only determines what is possible, in many ways, but what is not possible: code-as-law. It’s part of the system, and if you want to hack the system, well, at some point someone has to hack the code. That person could be you.

Today
At the Online News Association conference last week, I ran into Michelle Minkoff and Heather Billings standing in front of couple dozen enthusiastic young journalists who had gathered in the hallway to hear about programming. Michelle works with me in the Interactive department at the AP, while Heather just started at the Chicago Tribune. Both are fearsome technologists, though I don’t think either would be offended if I said they are still near the beginning of their journey. That makes them the perfect people to talk to about learning to program.

Most of the people attending had some programming experience, but not much. There were 24 people listening to Michelle and Heather, 9 of whom were female. A great improvement. I sat in on this conversation for a while. It wasn’t what I was expecting. No code. Very little technical discussion at all actually.  One woman said she knew enough Python to write a Hangman game. “Great!” said Michelle. “You’re ready to learn Django!”

I guess I’m surprised anyone has to be told that they are ready to learn to program. But inclusion and connection was a major theme in the discussion. Here are some of the snippets of conversation I wrote down:

“You can make an anonymous account on StackOverflow and ask stupid questions.”

“Connect in person, build that mentor relationship.”

“But that documentation is for developers!”

This was a group of people who needed to be told that they could learn to program. That they could be one of them. This is understandable. When you can’t begin decipher the supposed “instructions,” technology can seem like an occult priesthood. But you don’t need them. You just need to want to do it, really badly, and you need to find some other people who want to do it badly too (and obviously, expect to meet these people online.) Then one of them becomes one of us. Of course you can learn to program. It just takes a while, and a stupid amount of practice.

In fact it’s probably necessary to devote a few years of your life to it full time. That’s one of the advantages of a computer science degree — time to focus. Also, a CS degree is a fast track to the deep theory of computation; if you find yourself looking at programming languages and asking why they are the way they are, or staring hungrily across the awesome gap between your web apps and a search engine, you probably want to learn computer science, and formal education is one way to do that. But CS theory won’t make you a programmer. Only programming will do that.

Every truly good programmer I have known had some period of their life where they thought of nothing but code. Something around a year or two. It’s got to get under your skin at some point. I call this the hacker gestation period. You’ll know you’ve reached the other side of it, because software will stop being mysterious. Eventually code becomes clay.

And this formative period is why it’s so important to have a community. You’re going to need friends who are interested in talking about geeky stuff. You’ll be so excited about it for a while that you won’t be able to talk about much else. (Really. If this is not the case, go do something else. Programming takes so much soul that you’re going to hate your life if you don’t genuinely enjoy it.) Your community will help you when you get stuck, and they will help you develop your sense of style. Code is the most obscure art, because only another programmer can see all the layers of beauty in a truly lovely piece of code. But it’s very hard to become an artist alone, without influences and critics.

So it takes a village to make a programmer. I won’t say that our technical villages are now inhabited by “normal” people, by any stretch of the imagination, but the communities where programmers are now growing up seem far more diverse, supportive, and extroverted than in years past.

 

 

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Apr 15 2010

The world cannot be represented in machine-readable form

UPDATE: Debrouwere continues the conversation with a response to the key points here, in the comments to his original post.

Dutch journalist/coder Stijn Debrouwere has written a very thorough post describing the ways in which standard tags, like the ones on this blog or on Flickr, fall short when applied to news articles. There are lots of things we might like to know about a story, such as where and when it happened and who was involved. This additional information, sort of like the index to a book, is known as “metadata”, and there is within the online journalism community a great call for its use, including by Debrouwere:

Each story could function as part of a web of knowledge around a certain topic, but it doesn’t.

So here’s a well-intentioned idea you’ve heard before: journalists should start tagging. Jay Rosen insists that “Getting disciplined and strategic about tagging” may be one way professional journalism separates itself from the flood of cheap content online.” Tags can show how a news article relates to broader themes and topics. Just the ticket.

News metadata is a major topic, and many people have speculated deeply about the value of creating news metadata at the time of reporting, such as the ever-sarcastic Xark and the thoughtful Martin Belam who writes about why “linked data” is good for journalism. But I’m going to respond to Debrouwere because I read him today, because he has lovely diagrams that explain his good ideas, and because, in criticizing “tags” as a form of metadata, I think he misses some very important points.

And he’s not alone. My sense is that many of the coder-journalists of today have not learned from the mistakes of generations of technically-minded people who wished to talk about the world in more precise ways.

Moving forward from simple tagging, Debrouwere imagines more sophisticated annotation schemes that start to pick up on what the tags actually mean. For starters, the tags could be drawn from separate “vocabularies.” Does a tag refer to a person, or a place, or perhaps an event? Debrouwere uses the following picture, which I’m going to borrow here because it explains the idea so nicely:

5-types-of-relationships

But, he says, we can get even more sophisticated. What did the story actually say? If it mentioned a person, what did it say about them? Was it an interview? A profile? Did it criticize them? Here’s the diagram he draws: Continue Reading »

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Feb 15 2010

When you have to freeze your phone, technology is too complex

My iPhone seemed to work better on ice, so I spent the last two hours alternating between chilling it in the freezer and pressing buttons. The WiFi kept cutting out, and I read somewhere that one of the failure modes for the iPhone radio was thermal. Amazingly enough, it worked, and the WiFi would run for maybe three minutes after ten minutes of chilling. I desperately needed it to work, because my 3G service was down until I could install Ultrasn0w, the iPhone unlocking software. Which can only be installed by a program called Cydia, which only downloads new software over a WiFi network. I have to use unlocking software in the first place because US model iPhones are keyed to work only with AT&T, which doesn’t exist in Hong Kong. I successfully unlocked my phone months ago, and everything was working fine until I upgraded the firmware, which I did in the hopes of fixing the WiFi which failed last week.

If you didn’t follow that, consider yourself fortunate. You’ve never needed to wonder about such things.

It gets better. When I reset my phone it lost the WiFi password to my home network. I couldn’t find it written down. I couldn’t remember the password to log into my router to look it up. The internet told me how to reset the router at the hardware level, but to reconfigure the wireless I’d need to connect my laptop to it with a cable. Which I didn’t have. Luckily, I eventually remembered the router password.

I started drinking.

Password problem solved, every ten minutes I’d open the freezer door, reset the WiFi on my phone, wait for Cydia to download its package list, then tell it to download the mere 50kb of Ultrasn0w and hope to hell the radio didn’t blink out in the middle of the tiny transfer. Now I know exactly how many bars I get in the back of the freezer.

After eight or nine tries, I opened the freezer door to find my phone on the 3G network. Success!

Actually, it was way more involved than this. I left out a bunch of steps, all the things I tried that didn’t work. And of course the firmware upgrade did not fix the WiFi, so this experiment put me right back were I started and wasted six hours of my life and two tumblers of rather nice whiskey. At least I didn’t have to go out of my way to retrieve the ice.

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Oct 05 2009

iPhone Augmented Reality Arrives — But When Will We Make Art With It?

Last year I imagined an iPhone app that superimposed virtual objects over video from the phone’s camera. With the advent of the iPhone 3GS and its built-in compass, it’s now happening.

This video shows NearestWiki, which tags nearby landmarks/objects and guides you to them. I am aware of a few other AR apps, as this post on Mashable and this AP story discuss. Many of these apps do building/object recognition, and one even recognizes faces and displays a sort of business card. We’re already seeing annotation with data from Wikipedia, Twitter and Yelp, and I suspect that we’re going to see these tools get very deep in the very near future, with Wikipedia-style tagging of  the entire history and context of any object.

Just a moment while I get over the fact that the future is already here.

Ok, I’m properly jaded again. Yeah, it’s an app platform, and that’s cool — but imagine the possibilities for art. Bets on who’s going to make the first “alternate reality spyglass” piece? Bets on how much Matthew Barney will sell it for in the app store?

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Jul 31 2009

Self-Replicating Desktop Manufacturing: Dreams and Reality

The ambition of the RepRap project (“replicating rapid-prototyper”) is undeniably cool: to design a machine which is essentially a self-replicating 3D printer. By building up objects layer by layer, rapid prototyping technology can be used to manufacture the parts for just about any simple object or machine. It would be like having your own little factory in exactly the same way that having a laser printer is like having your own printing press, except that you can use this little factory to make another factory to give to your friend.

Theoretically, desktop manufacturing technology then spreads exponentially, until everyone can make whatever material objects they need from downloaded plans, for only the cost of feed plastic.

The dream is best explained in this excellent little video:

It’s hard to overstate the fundamental shift that would come with truly widespread desktop manufacturing. Right now all of the objects we use are manufactured somewhere far away and shipped to us, and the designs are expensive and slow to  change. Instead, imagine if everyone had a household appliance, perhaps fed by spools of plastic and metal wire, that could manufacture just about any object from plans downloaded from the internet. It’s hard to see how private designs could compete with millions of amateur object designers geeking out over their widgets for the benefit of humanity, which means that designs for all the basic desirable objects would be freely available.

Want a new phone? Download the latest Android phone plan from the Open Handset Foundation. That’s cool, but the really cool thing is this: everyone in the world could have one for the price of plastic. More to the point, everyone in the world could have e.g. irrigation pumps, car parts, light switches, medical devices, essentially all the trappings of modern technology.

It is of course debatable whether or not an increase in humanity’s use of energy-consuming technology is a good idea at this time. However, it seems to me unconscionable to deny it to the world’s poor just because we got there first. Further, one could also replicate the parts for home biomass reactors, electric cars, and other advanced energy devices — regardless of whether or not anyone can make a profit selling such items commercially.

New versions of the replicator with enhanced production capabilities (now with integrated circuits!) would be designed to be manufacturable using existing models. This means that manufacturing technology would itself spread virally. To bootstrap this, all you need are a few basic self-replicating machines, then the technology passes from friend to friend until the whole world is saturated and capable of producing all future upgrades.

But we are nowhere near that dream. There’s a lot of promise to desktop manufacturing, but I’ve come to believe that the RepRap approach is probably not the right one. And I’m going to try to explain why.

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Jun 15 2009

The Glissendo Performance, and Machine-Assisted Circus

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I was recently pointed to the most amazing thing, a music / fire / street performance called Glissendo, conceived by one “Ulik, the Machanical Clown” and executed by French art group Le Snob. They’re playing “Lightning” by Phillip Glass on a Dixieland band, riding Segways under the robes, and of course the band leader has dual hand-mounted flamethrowers.

Elegant, beautiful, and strangely sad.

The only substantial thing I can find on this Ulik character is this video. In it, Ulik performs with some of his contraptions such as a home-made jet-engine backpack (used with skis or rollerblades), a life-sized puppet who holds a camera and interviews him, and the front half of a car. It’s all wonderfully creative stuff, and it makes me wonder why we haven’t seen more hi-tech in circus.

For the potential is ample. We could use modern control-system technology to perform previously impossible man-machine feats of daring. I wonder about automatically balancing Segways 30 feet high than one could dance on top of, harnesses connected to a crane that cancels out its own friction and inertia and modulates the effective gravity under performer control, a ridiculously precise robotic juggling partner, or powered jumping stilts with built in balance and timing systems. This is not mere robotic circus; at their best, such machines become something between costume and vehicle, an extension of the performer’s body that makes them, taller, stronger, faster, or able to move excitingly inhuman ways.

Given that such wide artistic and technological possibilities exist, I find it hard to believe that they won’t be developed. We may currently be witnessing the last generation of aerial circus that does not make heavy use of technology.

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Mar 08 2009

FMRI “Mind Reading” Doesn’t Yet Threaten Humanity

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It is now possible to see what a person is looking at by scanning their brain. The technique, published last November by a team of Japanese neuroscientists, uses FMRI to reconstruct a digital image of the picture entering the eye, albeit at very low resolution and only after hundreds of training runs. Still, it’s an awesome development, and many articles covering this research have called it “mind reading” (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). But it really isn’t, and it’s fun to explore what real “mind reading” would imply.

When I hear “mind reading” I want psychic abilities. I want to be able to know what number you’re thinking of, where you were on the night of March 4th, and what you actually think of my souffle. This is the sort of technology that could be badly misused, as the comments on one blog note:

Am I the only one finding this DEEPLY disturbing? It opens the doors to some of the scariest 1984-style total-control future predictions. Imagine you can’t hide your f#&%!ng MIND!

Fortunately, we’re not there yet. Morover, if we did have the technology to read minds, we’d have much bigger societal issues than privacy to deal with. The existence of “mind reading machines” would imply that we possessed good formal models of the human mind, and that is a can of worms.

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Feb 04 2009

How Many World Wide Webs Are There?

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How much overlap is there between the web in different languages, and what sites act as gateways for information between them? Many people have constructed partial maps of the web (such as the  blogosphere map by Matthew Hurst, above) but as far as I know, the entire web has never been systematically mapped in terms of language.

Of course, what I actually want to know is, how connected are the different cultures of the world, really? We live in an age where the world seems small, and in a strictly technological sense it is. I have at my command this very instant not one but several enormous international communications networks; I could email, IM, text message, or call someone in any country in the world. And yet I very rarely do.

Similarly, it’s easy to feel like we’re surrounded by all the international information we could possibly want, including direct access to foreign news services, but I can only read articles and watch reports in English. As a result, information is firewalled between cultures; there are questions that could very easily be answered by any one of tens or hundreds of millions of native speakers, yet are very difficult for me to answer personally. For example, what is the journalistic slant of al-Jazeera, the original one in Arabic, not the English version which is produced by a completely different staff?  Or, suppose I wanted to know what the average citizen of Indonesia thinks of the sweatshops there, or what is on the front page of the Shanghai Times today– and does such a newspaper even exist? What is written on the 70% of web pages that are not in English?

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Jan 11 2009

What Internet Censorship Looks Like, Part 2

The Turkish Government censors internet access from within the country, as I discovered yesterday when attempting to access YouTube from the Turkish town of Selçuk, as this screenshot shows (click to enlarge):

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The English text on this page reads: “Access to this web site is banned by ‘TELEKOMÜNİKASYON İLETİŞİM BAŞKANLIĞI’ according to the order of: Ankara 1. Sulh Ceza Mahkemesi, 05.05.2008 of 2008/402″

Just to complete the irony, I was looking for a video of the Oscar Grant shooting when I first discovered this “blocked site” page.

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