Friday, July 25, 2008

Android to become a cyborg?

The latest rumor is that Android and Symbian will be combining, and that's why Google has been secretive and slow to release a new SDK. Hmm.

It's a coincidence

I've been thinking a lot about Mars lately, specifically steps to colonize Mars. Just wanted to state for the record that this has nothing to do with the fact that Google wants to make a Mars colony its next major project. Had no idea.

Anyway, I hope they don't approach a Mars colony the way they do their other projects, keeping it in beta indefintely. Probably would be hard to find early adopters that way.

Update: Link went bad, should work now.

Update 2: Did I mention the press release is dated April 1?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reading :: The Network Society

The Network Society: From Knowledge to Policy
Ed. Manuel Castells and Gustavo Cardoso

Policy books are difficult for me to get through since they tend to be narrowly focused and defined and overwhelmingly analytical. Yet this work is necessary and vital work (work that I'm glad interests others). Overall, that's the sort of work that The Network Society does. The collection has a particular focus on Portugal, but discusses trends across the globe as well.

What sorts of trends? That's where Manuel Castells' excellent introduction comes in. As Castells explains it, the organizational form of networks has been with us a long time, but networks have not scaled up beyond a certain size and complexity because they have had difficulty in mastering and coordinating resources. Now, however, "digital networking technologies enable networks to overcome their historical limits. They can, at the same time, be flexible and adaptive thanks to their capacity to decentralize performance along a network of autonomous components, while still being able to coordinate all this decentralized activity on a shared purpose of decision making" (p.4). Castells rejects the litany of underexamined complaints about new technologies, as well as the counterpoint litany of underexamined praises (pp.6-7), to focus on what we actually know about how these technologies are affecting society. He notes an increasing trend toward economic activity performed by networks of networks built around specific business projects (p.9); the erosion of stable and predictable careers (p.9); the ability to work autonomously, also known as self-programmable labor "not necessarily to increase monetary gains but to enjoy greater freedom, flex-time, or more opportunity to create" (p.10); and the hypersociality (not hyposociality) of networked society (p.11).

Castells sees the rise of a new form of state: a network state. Such a state does not replace nation-states, he says, since no one wants a world government, but a global government is a functional need so we are now seeing networks of nation-states (such as the EU) as well as ad hoc groupings of nation-states. "Thus, the actual system of governance in our world is not centered around the nation-state, although nation-states are not disappearing by any means. Governance is operated in a network of political institutions that shares sovereignty in various degrees an[d] reconfigurates itself in a variable geopolitical geometry" (p.15).

Castells' introduction alone is worth the price of admission.

Reading :: Smart Mobs

Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution
By Howard Rheingold

I've been meaning to read Smart Mobs for a while. The last time I checked it out from the library, I left it at a bus stop. Fortunately, some good samaritan returned it to the library. So now I'm back at it.

Smart Mobs is a well known, widely cited book, and for good reason. Published in 2002, its predictions are generally dead on, making it surprisingly relevant even five years later (an immense time period in terms of mobile technologies).

Rheingold defines smart mobs in this way:
Smart mobs consist of people who act in concert even if they don't know each other. The people who make up smart mobs cooperate in ways never before possible because they carry devices that possess both communication and computing capabilities. Their mobile devices connect them with other information devices in the environment as well as with other people's telephones. (p.xii).

He goes on to describe several possible applications of mobile technologies, applications that have been realized or are being realized at present (xii). But Rheingold is less interested in the specific applications of technologies than he is in how these transform the possibilities of cooperation and communication, in turn spurring shifts in culture, society, and work. For instance, he observed that mobile technologies in Japan were already dictating fashion changes (p.3; as an aside, I predict that a new wave of smartphones and internet devices will prolong the fad of cargo pants) and mobile phones in Norway were allowing users to remain accessible to their peer group while simultaneously participating in other events (p.6). He also observed early trends that predicted the shift of mobile phones away from communication devices and towards a "remote control" for interacting with the world (p.11).

I was a little startled to see that Rheingold interviewed, among others, "Jyri Engestrom, a sociology student in his early twenties" (p.17). Engestrom later worked for Nokia before cofounding Jaiku, a service that flourished briefly before being acquired by Google last year. Engestrom is quoted describing a public space in terms of consumption, production, and exchange, in a phrase that could have been taken from one of his father Yjro's articles (p.17).

In any case, the book is easy to read and surprisingly fresh; I would recommend it over more contemporary work such as Shirky's Here Comes Everybody for people who are interested in the impact of mobile technologies.

The only disappointment I found was that in the last chapter, Rheingold turns to Foucault to discuss the "panoptic" possibilities of mobile technologies. Specifically, he worries that too much information about our mobile dealings will result in self-censorship and other ways of conforming due to pervasive surveillance. True, in some contexts and societies this will be the case. But Smart Mobs is stuffed with counterexamples, and I wanted Rheingold to explore further why these counterexamples occur. One reason, I think, is that mobile technologies (at least as they are currently configured) foster peer-to-peer connections that actually encourage violations of conformance by surfacing counterconformance across the network -- or more accurately, surface different centers and activities, exacerbating the tensions and contradictions across established and nascent activities.

I'm just thinking out loud here, but: In Bentham's panopticon, prisoners (theoretically) conformed because they knew they might be observed by the guards, who had the ability to enforce conformance. The uncertainty of whether they were being watched or not resulted in incorporating state-friendly actions into their every movement. In the police state of the Soviet Union we saw something similar, although citizens also developed "double consciousness" in reaction to the contradiction between pervasive surveillance and private activities (see Wertsch). In 1984, the protagonist similarly finds himself called out by the televised exercise leader for not exercising strenuously enough, an event that nicely illustrates the ambiguity of surveillance that results in the weaving of state intent into citizens' unconscious action.

But we move across different groups with different expectations. You might behave quite differently at your bowling alley, your church, and your home, for instance. When peer-to-peer connections are enabled, you might find yourself interacting in multiple networks simultaneously, and state power (at least in a relatively hands-off state such as the US) contends with power in these other intersecting activities. So countervailing knots form, from hobby groups to cryptography clubs to sex clubs. And the power of social opprobrium is loosened in any given knot, since other knots have different criteria and one can live across these knots. So we're seeing much freer discussions and diverse identifications, as well as fracturing of political organizations (e.g., the Reagan coalition is fracturing into libertarian-leaning conservatives, South Park conservatives, social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, small-government conservatives, and other groups that are beginning to form knots where they can more freely articulate viewpoints diverging from the Republican platform). Like the car, which encouraged the dissolution of stable communities and loosened stakes in neighborhoods, mobile technology is accellerating the shift toward such knots of interrelated activities with different expectations. Rheingold actually gives some examples of these, and I'd be interested in seeing a more fully theorized exploration of them.

Teaching controversies: Using Opposing Views as a simple support site

TechCrunch announces Opposing Views, a site on which certified experts debate established controversies such as peak oil and the supposed connection between thimerosal and autism. It aims to be a go-to site for getting up to speed quickly on a controversy, with links to further resources.

There are problems with the (lower case) opposing-views model, since it tends to bifurcate more complex discussions. But the site might be really useful in particular for rhetoric teachers using the so-called controversy model, as we do in our introductory rhetoric and writing courses at UT. I like that, compared to other sources such as Wikipedia, Opposing Views puts the controversy front and center. On the other hand, setting up two opposing sides tends to lend equal credence to both. OV doesn't debate whether the world is flat, but you can imagine how a "balanced" debate would give credence to the flat-earthers.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The McCain-doesn't-use-the-internet meme

I've seen this meme half a dozen places: John McCain doesn't use the Internet or computers, therefore he's unqualified to be President.

Well, I'm intensely interested in understanding digital technologies and how they are causing enormous shifts in work, education, and leisure -- but I think this argument is pretty thin. It's essentially the flip side of the "experience" argument that we hear trotted out in various ways, often from the McCain camp itself. Candidate X has never served in the military, so how can he be commander-in-chief? Candidate Y has no executive experience, so how can she function as chief executive? Candidate Z has little economic experience, so how can he run the largest economy in the world?

Yet we generally don't narrow the pool of candidates to governors with economics degrees and military backgrounds. Competent leaders hire teams to take care of the issues in which they are not expert. Or to put it another way: the pool of true polymaths who are also outstanding leaders is pretty small. And that's okay.

But perhaps computer use seems more like a basic life skill. Like pumping gas or buying groceries -- two activities that we don't honestly expect our President to do either. I'm much more interested in what the candidate thinks about technology and education, technology and public policy, technology and the economy, than whether s/he can blog. I am not convinced that the experience of using a consumer electronic device will impart significant experiential knowledge that can't be substituted by a good board of advisors. Obama has a 300-person foreign policy advisory board to shore up his perceived weakness, and that seems perfectly reasonable as long as he can coordinate them; surely McCain can similarly draw on an advisory board to shore up his lack of experience in Googling.

(I should make clear here that I'm not in the tank for either McCain or Obama. I just want people to base their decisions on arguments that are reasonable and significant.)

iPhone total cost of ownership

One source ran the numbers, which are pretty remarkable.