Posts Tagged internet

Faceless in the crowd

As in a good fantasy story, there are parts of the Internet you just shouldn’t go to.

Peruse the comments section of just about any website, and you’re likely to run across vitriol-spewing trolls, hurling obscenities–and sometimes even rape or death threats–in arguments about seemingly everything.

In “The Epidemic of Facelessness,” a recent opinion piece for The New York Times, Stephen Marche attributes the rise of casually monstrous behavior on the Internet to the fact that attackers never see their victims’ faces.

Pulling examples from a diverse catalog that includes ancient Roman law, French phenomenology, and neuroscience, Marche argues that actually seeing another person’s face is the key to empathy.

That doesn’t typically happen online, hence the ease with which rape and death threats get thrown around.

It also means people need to work to imbue others with humanity. Attackers need to realize the people they’re threatening are, well, people, and their attacks should be understood in the context of a complex human psyche.

Remembering not to leave our humanity online is an admirable and necessary goal to work towards, but it will likely get harder to do as we rely more on indirect digital communication.

Because while society still shuns Internet trolls, it also continues to devalue humanity  at the expense of performing discreet tasks more efficiently.

That’s what digital technology does. It lets us do everything from shopping to wishing each other “Happy Birthday” quickly, cleanly, and efficiently.

Saving money and time is good, of course, but it’s possible this obsession with digital efficiency is also grooming people to be less tolerant of each other.

The number of situations where strangers are forced to candidly interact in everyday life is diminishing. Does using one of those self-cehckout machines really save that much time, or do you just prefer not having to exchange pleasantries with a human cashier?

It’s not that people need to be in the mood to talk to each other all of the time, but with Internet-related technology making it so easy to put each other at a distance, it’s hard to see how the “epidemic of facelessness” can be cured.

Beneath the shiny confidence of Silicon Valley futurism, the way of life being constructed around the Internet is potentially damaging to human empathy, even if it is easier.

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All work and no pay

“Millennials” have a lot to answer for.

We don’t buy cars, and we don’t buy houses. All we need to do is refrain from having 2.5 children, and we’ll have destroyed the American Dream.

Analysts often attribute my generation’s spending habits to some form of contrary thinking, but there’s a simpler explanation: we have no money.

A recent article in The New York Times highlights the problem of unpaid internships, which have replaced many entry-level jobs, leaving young people with no way to enter the working world.

Some college graduates spend the rest of their twenties in a cycle of internships, with no ability to advance to real jobs and, of course, no money to show for it.

Employers seem to think that they can run businesses without employees or, at least, without paying them.

In addition to replacing entry-level jobs with internships, they’ve turned increasingly to freelance or temp workers for jobs even the most desperate person won’t do for free.

Since these people aren’t technically employees, a company doesn’t have to offer them benefits, or pay its share of certain taxes–like Social Security–that are regularly deducted from employee paychecks.

Then there was the tantrum some companies threw when the Affordable Care Act mandated that they provide health insurance for all full-time employees. They delayed the employer mandate, then threatened to eliminate full-time positions just to get out of the requirement.

Unpaid internships, the cutting of full-time positions, and oppressively-low minimum wages may be good for business, but they’re not good for society.

People are quick to judge someone who borrows too much, or makes an extravagant purchase they really can’t afford. Maybe we should do the same with businesses.

A business that makes money while keeping its workers poor is operating on as false a pretense as a janitor who buys a new Mercedes.

The latter would be judged irresponsible, so why shouldn’t McDonalds’ be criticized for claiming massive profits while refusing to pay its employees a living wage?

That probably isn’t going to happen It’s always easier to blame the individual than the organization, especially when the organization is judged according to different standards.

Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp is in the news because of the comical list of companies that appear to be worth less than WhatsApp.

Nobody seems to have heard of WhatsApp, yet it’s worth more than some of the tech companies that produce the devices needed to use it, as well as Harley-Davidson, News Corp, and others.

Yet, like Facebook itself, WhatsApp doesn’t produce anything. It’s just an app.

It seems that actually making goods or providing services is bad for business, let alone taking care of employees.

And how can employees stand a chance when money is flowing to businesses that don’t even need to pay for factories or stores to operate?

Karl Marx said the only way for workers to secure their rights was to gain control of the means of production, but when nothing tangible is produced, what is there to take control of?

The economy is becoming increasingly ethereal; the rise of the Internet has made eliminating expenses the main priority of businesses, not being good at what they do, or playing a responsible role in society.

The fundamental purpose of a business is to make money, but when businesses make that their exclusive purpose, everybody loses.

The snide criticism of the “Millennial” lifestyle will probably turn to panic is this generation reaches middle age, and is still getting other people’s coffee.

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The generational mirror

I really need to stop being so nosy.

“The world has changed, and not for the better,” I heard an older gentleman say to one of his friends while waiting online for takeout. He was discussing how he never does anything online, because “they always ask for your credit card.”

“It’s not just that, the fundamental moral fiber of the country has changed,” the friend said in agreement.

I’m not saying that I disagree with them, but I do think it’s interesting how people of a certain generation can decry society’s moral degradation when their peers are the ones that caused it.

“Millennials” are often described as feckless denizens of their parents’ basements, willing to sacrifice any freedom in the pursuit of technological connectivity.

That simply isn’t true. While the younger generations are the first to come of age with smartphones in their hands, this situation–and the concept that digital “smart” technologies are a catch-all social savior–was created by the Baby Boomers, who count Steve Jobs and Bill Gates among their ranks.

It’s the same story in politics. It’s easy to reminisce about the good old days of Jacob Javits, and blame Millennials for not being more politically active, when you forget who’s actually in Congress now.

Society has a lot of problems, but idly criticizing it without acknowledging where those problems came from won’t solve anything.

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Printed narratives

Cube Colors 034What do this month’s issues of Car & Driver and Popular Science have in common? 3D printing.

There’s something about the summer that causes magazine editors to compile lists of future technologies that are poised to change… something. The Car & Driver cover story  for August features “The Tech 50” for cars, while Popular Science is probing the future of flight in their July issue (both are on newsstands now).

Both the automotive and aviation industries, it seems, could benefit from 3D printing. “Printed Cars” was number six on C&D’s list of paradigm-shifting tech.

Jim Kor, leader of the Urbee printed car project, told the magazine that 3D printing is a superior manufacturing process because it requires less energy, produces less waste, and doesn’t require time-consuming retooling when changes to the design have to be made.

Popular Science was also impressed by a 3D printer’s lack of tooling, noting that aircraft manufacturers already use it to rapidly produce prototype parts.

It seems that 3D printing’s time has come, at least in the media. While there aren’t any cars in production with printed parts, and only a few small items on the spanking-new Boeing 787, the technology seems to have a bright future.

There have been glorious predictions of 3D printers for the price of a cheap ink jet in the tech press for awhile, but now journalists from other beats are developing applications for it. Time to take notice.

Maybe it’s my cynical 21st century media consumer nature taking over, but it seems like every time someone wants to write about the “future” of an industry, they are obligated to mention the hottest new piece of tech.

Whether its phone connectivity or data management, the technologies of centuries past are increasingly expected to absorb new “tech” to stay relevant.

There’s nothing insidious about this, and I have to say I really do like 3D printing. It’s got a whiff of Marxism to it, giving individuals a small chunk of the means of production. It’s theoretical march from startup office to heavy industry is very predictable, though.

Like other aspects of the tech-o-sphere, 3D printing is a very cool, genuinely new technology that hasn’t really found a purpose yet. Hence the endless possibilities being suggested.

If I were allowed to make a prediction of my own, I’d say that these magazine articles will become self-fulfilling prophecies. People will eventually find an ideal use for 3D printing, just as they did for the Internet, and the rest of the world will be subtly warped to maximize that use.

Technologies can become widespread not just because they are useful, but because people want to find uses for them. Will 3D printing follow that trend?

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The young anachronism

AMT Grumman F9F PantherMy birth date puts me firmly within the generation that grew up with computers and smartphones, yet I sometimes feel like an anachronism. I’ve watched some of my favorite things (books, magazines, bookstores) and my chosen profession (print journalism) become threatened by digitalia, and the cycle isn’t stopping.

In a recent column, Car and Driver’s Aaron Robinson chronicled the demise of hobby stores. Yet another analog activity bites the dust.

I guess I’m lucky that my local hobby store isn’t affected by this trend. I’ve got a 1971 Dodge Charger plastic model kit on my workbench right now, with a Cold War-era guided missile cruiser and an F-104 Starfighter in the queue.

Given that the death of print books has been forecast for several years and Barnes & Noble is still open, I won’t be running down to the hobby shop to clear the shelves like a crazed prepper just yet. Still, it never feels good to have one of your passions make the transition from mainstream to old fashioned.

Sometimes, it makes me feel like I missed the boat on the digital revolution, but only just. When I purchased by first SLR camera in 2001, digital SLRs were extremely expensive and 35mm film was still putting up a fight in the battle for relevance. I also remember the typewriter my dad used to use for word processing.

That’s why I still prefer to shoot with film, draw with a pencil, read a physical book, and assemble plastic toys for fun. Like many older people who are expected to have a fondness for such things, I can truthfully say that I grew up with this stuff.

“At 43, I don’t feel ready to be called “old school,’” Robinson said in his Car and Driver column. At 25, I feel the same way.

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Boston is bombed, one tweet at a time

Since I got a Twitter account recently, I haven’t been sure of what to do with it. On Monday, I found a very good, but very unpleasant, use for it.

As with so many things these days, I found out about the Boston Marathon bombings through a reference on someone’s Facebook profile. Scrolling through the newsfeed, I saw a status from a college classmate:

“Slowly finding out more about what happened during the Boston Marathon,” it read.

I jumped over to Twitter and, sure enough, a photo of the scene of the first explosion had already been retweeted by a friend. Reports of a series of explosions were starting to come in, intermixed with Pulitzer prize winners and the announcement that Chris Hardwick will be in Baltimore on May 24.

“Two men had bombs strapped to themselves and they both went off,” a tweet posted 32 minutes before I logged on read, “everyone is scrambling.”

Switching over to the New York Times’ website, there were only a few short lines confirming that explosions had occurred, not even using the word “bomb.”

Facebook and the news sites stayed quiet a bit longer, but Twitter was shot through with  reports, mostly from the Associated Press and journalists who were already on site. The Boston Globe posted a video of the first explosion, and soon it was possible see it from nearly every angle by scanning the tweets.

Not everything tweeted that day was accurate (the report of suicide bombers doesn’t jibe with what investigators are learning about the bombs) but the most necessary information was imparted as quickly as possible.

So that, it seems, is what Twitter is for.

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Five things that make Star Trek better than reality

Star Trek TOS castFor those of you who don’t live in an imaginary universe, today is First Contact Day. In the Star Trek mythos, Humans and Vulcans first met on April 5, 2063, after the inaugural warp flight of Zefram Cochrane’s Phoenix caught the attention of a Vulcan survey ship.

In honor of First Contact Day, I’d like to (try) to explain what I love about Star Trek the most. It’s not the aliens or the reliable sound effects, it’s that Star Trek depicts an ideal society that we should all work to make real. Here are five things that make living in the Star Trek universe better than living in reality.

Klingon replicator1) No Money

Obviously, this is a good thing. Money might make the world go ‘round in 2013, but it would be pretty sweet to live in a world without poverty in 2213. Also, because it will never have to worry about paying bills again, humanity can become more goal-oriented.  How many investors do you think would be interested in financing construction of a massive starship just so William Shatner can cruise around the galaxy in it?

Granted, this isn’t something that can be realistically achieved without a massive technological breakthrough. Star Trek’s money-less society relies on matter replicators, which can easily make all of the necessities of life like food, clothing, and even large machines. Since most commodities are infinitely replicable, there’s no point in charging money for them.

So far, we’re not even close to building replicators (3D printers don’t count).

USS Enterprise refit engineering2) Machines that help Humans instead of replacing them

I read a lot about how robots and computers will eventually replace the human worker, thanks to their efficiency and the fact that they never ask for raises. Star Trek shows us an ideal human-machine relationship and, while the machines do a lot of the heavy lifting, humans are still doing the work.

Every Trekkie recognizes the voice of Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, because she’s the audio talent behind every starship computer. These computers do plenty of things: they operate systems, run diagnostics, and conduct database searches. But they don’t do that on their own: Starfleet officers are always telling the computers what to do, and analyzing the information they provide.

If it were any other way, there would be no point in sending the Enterprise on a five-year mission of exploration; a robotic probe would be much cheaper. Starfleet even has an android officer, Data, but all he wants is to be human. That’s the right attitude.

The Federation doesn’t just explore space to gather data, it explores to give people the opportunity to see new things. That’s why the Enterprise’s helmsman puts the ship into Warp 9, even if a computer is actually firing up the engines.

Data playing guitar3) People who do what they love

The result of a money-less society and healthy amounts of automation is that people are able to do things because they want to. No one in Star Trek takes a job because they need health insurance, and they have plenty of free time to enrich themselves.

It’s amazing how many people on every incarnation of the Enterprise are musicians, artists, or actors. It’s also cool to think about how wonderful life would be if everyone had time to pursue things like that.

A hobby is a great way to take one’s mind of the drudgery of everyday life, and it’s even more enjoyable when there is time to devote to it. Today, it’s hard to conduct recreational pursuits for their own sake because our time is so valuable, but in a future where income and manual labor don’t exist, that won’t be the case.

USS Enterprise NCC-1701A4) Spaceships

Of course, people will need something more substantial to do. Humanity requires more substantial tasks than cottage industry (sorry, Etsy and Kickstarter) and space exploration is a very substantial task.

Spacecraft are cool in their own right, but their most important role in Star Trek is keeping people productive. If we no longer need to work for a living, and if we’re displaced from today’s jobs by machines, we can’t just sit around all day posting photos to Instagram.

Luckily, Starfleet is very labor-intensive. The original USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) had a crew of 432, while the Next Generation-era Enterprise (NCC-1701D) had about 1,000 souls aboard (including civilians). There’s also the armies of people needed to build these things, plus command staff, diplomats, designers, and other Starfleet personnel.

Most importantly, Starfleet gives people a chance to go to new places and experience new things, which brings us to the best thing about Star Trek

Starfleet5) Imagination

Something I find very annoying about life in 2013 is that we constantly talk about how high-tech our society is, but can never find any good uses for that technology. Facebook is fun, but whatever happened to going to the moon, or curing diseases? What we have is a lack of imagination.

Gene Roddenberry wasn’t lacking in imagination. He imagined how technology could solve humanity’s greatest problems, and enable its greatest achievements. It wasn’t a realistic vision, but at least it gave us something to shoot for.

Restricting ourselves to only thinking of new ways to use existing technology will never advance anything, because its doesn’t give people a reason to. That’s how technological advances happen: people think of something that doesn’t exist, and try to create it.

Constantly recycling today’s digital tech won’t do that. Yes, we could have “smart” toothbrushes that play our Pandora stations, but if our predecessors had the same attitude we’d still be riding stagecoaches.

No cleverly named app will unite the world, but a ship that can travel faster than the speed of light just might. Maybe we’ll find out in 50 years.

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