I just learned about Convergence 08, a two-day event at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA featuring a bunch of futurists and other thinkers on technology. From their buzzword-heavy blurb:
On November 15-16, 2008, the world's most dangerous ideas will collide in Mountain View, California. Convergence08 examines the world-changing possibilities of Nanotech and the life-changing promises of Biotech. It is the premier forum for debate and exploration of Cogtech ethics, and ground zero of the past and future Infotech revolution. Convergence08 is an innovative, lively unconference, the first and only forum dedicated to NBIC (Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno) technologies.
Stephen Fry's technology column in the Guardian is best when someone else writes it for him. This week Douglas Coupland, having been sent for review some European gadgets that are useless in Canada, muses instead on the relationship between time and gadgets. An excerpt:
Time is measured in tech waves, and not only do these tech waves demarcate eras, they also define them.
remember in the 80s when cellphones first started to pop. I remember
how, if you saw someone using a cellphone on a street, you immediately
thought they were an asshole: gee, my phone call is so important I have
to make it right here and right now! Twenty years later, we're all
assholes. We're assholes at the supermarket's meat counter at 5:30pm,
phoning home to ask if we need prosciutto; we're assholes driving in
traffic; and we're assholes wandering down the streets. And with
cellphones and handhelds, we collapse time and space and our perception
of distance and intimacy.
Recently Jeannette Winterson tested out some "beauty machines":
What no one needs is a thing called the Hydro Test (£24.99, from iliftuk.com).
mascara-tube size device claims to measure the moisture content of your
skin. You press it against whatever bit of the body you long to reveal
its watery secret, and the digital display pops up a number that
corresponds to a table that tells you just how desiccated you are.
tried this all over my poor old bod, and the reading was so dismal that
I felt compelled to ring my friend who is a GP. She advised immediate
hospitalisation and a saline drip. Crestfallen, but determined to
further my experiments for the sake of Guardian readers, I tried the
thingy on my cat - I can tell you now that it doesn't work through fur.
Luckily, this cat had recently had a little shaved patch at the vet, so
I tried it on that. Result? Cat obviously ready for taxidermist.
Taking my dried-out self and my wrung-out cat to the pond, I laid a
chamois-leather car sponge (skin, right?) on the surface of the water.
The Hydro Test revealed that what I have always called the pond is, in
fact, a sandpit. At this point I thought of chucking the thingy
straight in the bin where it belongs, but it has a disclaimer on the
info that says it mustn't be disposed of via "the waste stream". I
expect to see lots of these at Bring & Buy sales quite soon.
That's what the new LeapFrog Tag promises. From the New York Times:
This week, LeapFrog pulls the wraps off the LeapPad’s successor, the
Tag, a thick, white and green plastic stylus that turns paper books
into interactive playthings. LeapFrog is betting that the $50 Tag,
which will be available this summer along with an 18-volume library
that includes children’s classics like “The Little Engine That Could”
and “Olivia,” will be the hit it badly needs. It calls the Tag its
“biggest launch ever.”
The Tag, officially called the Tag Reading
System, works a lot like the LeapPad. Children can tap a word with it
and the stylus reads the word, or its definition, aloud. They can tap
on an image to hear a character’s voice come alive. Interactive games
test their reading comprehension. At its simplest, the Tag can also act
as an audio book and simply read a story from beginning to end.
The Tag also tracks reading progress, which parents can monitor on a website.
I know LeapFrog puts a lot of research into its products so I'm sure the design of this toy is well thought out, but this seems like technology in search of a problem. Is gadgetry like this going to promote more love of reading or more love of gadgetry?
Engadget did a post on this device recently, and one of the comments includes this:
I have 2 small children, and while we do a lot of "conventional" work
on their reading, the Leapster has been useful and effective.
well, the Leapster has gotten my kids using technology, and getting
comfortable with it, from an early age. Both of my kids (4 and 7 years
old) read well above their age level, and their tech-literacy is far
above their peers.
What kind of tech-literacy do 4-7 year-olds need? Nobody needs that early a start, do they? I don't have kids, so maybe I'm just out of touch. Getting kids familiar with the tools they'll use in school makes some sense, but there's got to be a limit to how young the pressure for techno-literacy needs to go (check out the i-grow PC concept for an idea of where we may be headed).
The New York Times has a good article today about driver distraction. Excerpts:
Talking on cellphones and typing text messages while driving has
already led to bans in many states. But now auto companies, likening
their latest models to living rooms on the road, are turning cars into
cocoons of communication systems and high-tech entertainment.
drivers are packing their car interiors with G.P.S. navigation screens,
portable DVD players and even computer keyboards and printers.
Senator Carl L. Marcellino of New York learned this firsthand while
riding in a cab in Miami — the driver was watching a boxing match on a
television mounted on the dashboard.
have always engaged in risky behavior, whether it is eating a sandwich,
arguing with a spouse, applying makeup or studying a map while speeding
down the interstate.
But safety experts say the influx of
electronics is turning cars into sometimes chaotic — and distracting —
moving family rooms.
Some safety advocates wonder whether studies on driver behavior will
always be a step behind new technology. “It seems that society is
moving so fast that the effects on safety just aren’t fully understood
until problems arise,” said Sean Kane of Safety Research and
Strategies, a consulting firm in Rehoboth, Mass.
Even drivers who
are focused on the road can suffer from electronic overload — from
passengers who, say, might be fighting over which DVD to watch.
The Japanese automaker Nissan unveiled a concept minivan, called the Forum, at last month’s Detroit auto show.
Like most minivans, the Forum has an integrated media system that
allows children and other passengers to watch movies, play games and
hear their favorite songs.
The designers included a low-tech
feature specifically for a driver distracted by the technology — a
button that immediately shuts down all the electronics to silence
unruly passengers and, presumably, make driving safer.
we were all saying, when is enough enough?” said Bruce Campbell, a vice
president of Nissan Design America. “At some point, you need to say
time out, no more distractions.”
Because I'm feeling snarky I'll play devil's advocate and tell you what's wrong with the list, or at least the first 10 items for now.
I should say up front that I'm not totally opposed to ebooks. I think with the right design they'll work, especially for travelling. I'll probably even buy one as soon as they're cheap enough, are free of DRM (and don't make me pay twice to own both a paper and an electronic copy), and are pleasant enough to use.
The first item on the list:
1. Ebooks promote reading. People are spending more time in front of screens and less time in front of printed books.
How many of those people have the attention span when at a computer to read more than a few pages at a time without stopping?
Ebooks are good for the environment. Ebooks save trees. Ebooks
eliminate the need for filling up landfills with old books. Ebooks save
transportation costs and the pollution associated with shipping books
across the country and the world.
Ebook readers aren't without environmental costs. And is there really a "need" to fill up landfills with old books? (Recycling? Hello?)
3. Ebooks preserve books. (The
library of Alexandria was burned and the collection ruined. Richard
Burton's wife, after his death and against his wishes, destroyed a book
he had been working on for ten years. The original manuscript of
Carlyle's The French Revolution was lost when a friend's servant tossed
it into the fire.) Ebooks are ageless: they do not burn, mildew,
crumble, rot, or fall apart. Ebooks ensure that literature will endure.
Last week I went to a course taught by design guru Edward Tufte. Among the interesting artifacts he showed: a 400+ year-old first edition of Galileo's book, and a copy of the first English translation of Euclid. These were not falling apart -- far from it. He was walking around with them and flipping the pages. How likely is your favorite ebook format to last 400 years? Ebooks are far from "ageless". The idea that paper books fall apart quickly is a myth.
Furthermore, ebooks do not necessarily "preserve" books. This has been discussed recently with respect to Google's book scans. OCR and plain text don't save drawings and formatting. That same Galileo book had hand drawings in line with the text -- easy to do 400 years ago but a pain to preserve with today's software and electronic formats.
Fires happen and books get lost, but so does data, and when data goes it's usually massive and instantaneous -- there's no fire extinguisher.
4. Ebooks, faster to produce than paper books, allow readers to read books about current issues and events.
Book printing and distribution can happen very fast (think of the 911 report and other recent current events books that were rushed out). Ideally publishers would post e-book versions in advance of print versions for early buyers, just as software is sometimes available for download before CDs are shipped.
5. Ebooks are easily updateable, for correcting errors and adding information.
True, but I'd rather have those corrections available as addenda on the web or as carefully planned second editions than have them made in real time to the book. Am I supposed to revisit the book every time the author changes a word?
Ebooks are searchable. Quickly you can find anything inside the book.
Ebooks are globally searchable: you can find information in many ebooks.
True, if searching is what you want to do (this is mostly irrelevant for fiction, for example). A good index can be easier to use than a search interface.
7. Ebooks are portable. You can carry an entire library on one DVD.
Can't argue there. Portability is the main, and possibly only, thing ebooks have going for them.
8. Ebooks (in the form of digital audio books) free you to do other activities while you are listening.
It depends on the activity and it's debatable whether you retain the information as well as when reading. It's a different experience -- you can't easily back up to reread a sentence on an audio book, and you can't search or browse it later.
9. Ebooks can be printable: and thereby give a reader most or all of the advantages of a paper-based book.
A stack of papers is less appealing than a bound book. Sure you could take it to Kinkos to bind it, but that'll cost you more than buying a printed version in the first place. Book printing kiosks might work but the quality will probably be low. Furthermore, this argument is kind of silly -- I could just as easily say "you can scan in your printed book and make it an ebook; therefore a printed book has all the advantages of an ebook!"
Ebooks defy time: they can be delivered almost instantly. Ebooks are
transported to you faster than overnight shipping: in minutes or in
Multitasking has been in the news quite a bit lately. Research has shown that multitasking can make us perform worse -- it's usually better to focus on single tasks. Often, though, I've seen people try to counter this news in the tech media and blogs by referring to Linda Stone's concept of "Continuous Partial Attention." She posted an article last week at Huffington Post about this, and it begins:
People often say we're multi-tasking ourselves to death. Is that really what we're doing? I think not.
I call what we're doing today continuous partial attention, or cpa, for short.
Continuous partial attention and multi-tasking are two different
attention strategies, motivated by different impulses. When we
multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more
efficient. Each activity has the same priority - we eat lunch AND file
papers. We stir the soup AND talk on the phone. With multi-tasking, one
or more activities is somewhat automatic, like eating lunch or stirring
soup. That activity can be paired with another activity that's
automatic or with an activity that requires more cognition, like
writing an email or talking on the phone. At the core of multi-tasking
is a desire to be more productive. We multi-task to CREATE more
opportunity for ourselves -time to DO more and time to RELAX more.
In the case of continuous partial attention, we're motivated by a
desire not to miss anything. There's a kind of vigilance that is not
characteristic of multi-tasking. With cpa, we feel most alive when
we're connected, plugged in and in the know. We constantly SCAN for opportunities - activities or people - in any
given moment. With every opportunity we ask, "What can I gain here?"
I think I see her point (and I've read more about CPA at her web site). It sounds plausible that there are different kinds of multitasking, but as far as I can tell this is all just speculation on her part. Where is the science? Has anyone done serious psychology studies
on this? What I've read on multitasking contradicts her ideas. Unless
she can cite some studies (or at least work in progress) to show that
CPA is a meaningful psychological construct, I have a hard time taking
Stone is a writer, speaker, and consultant, and is well known, apparently, as a "visionary thinker and thought leader." But it's not surprising that the idea of continuous partial attention gets a welcome reception from laptop-bearing technology pundits at conferences.
Comedian Amy Borkowsky is giving up her cell phone for 60 days, starting January first, and writing about it at her web site. From the intro:
On January 1st, Borkowsky will attempt to ring in 2008 with a lot
less ringing, as she officially turns off her cell phone service for
sixty days, becoming America’s first advocate for moderation in cell
phone use. [...]
“I’m doing this because I really question how being so dependent on my cell phone is affecting my quality of life.”
a lot of people, she wonders how it evolved from a smart thing to have
in an emergency to something convenient for outgoing calls but not
essential, to such a constant attachment to her ear that “my face
practically has a tan line in the shape of the VX8300.”
The man accused of killing a 13-year-old boy
in a hit-and-run in Taunton told police he was behind the wheel typing
a text message on his cellphone when he lost control of the sport
utility vehicle and hit what he thought was a mailbox, a prosecutor
said today in court.
Craig P. Bigos, 31, told investigators that he did not realize the
SUV had struck the boy on the bicycle until he drove back down Poole
Street hours later on his way to work at a restaurant, said Bristol
County prosecutor Aaron T. Strojny.
As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial is a graphic novel written by anarcho-primitivist Derrick Jensen and illustrated by Stephanie McMillan. It offers up some stark truths about the environment to help you debate your friends who think we'll save the earth simply by switching to compact fluorescent lightbulbs, buying hybrid cars, and carrying our groceries in $1000 "green" canvas shopping bags. Jensen also educates us on animal rights, corporate power and other issues -- the book is none too subtle. The graphic format and occasional bits of humor are what saves this book. I don't think I could stomach larger does of Jensen (e.g. his Endgame) and I dislike his defense of violence and other radical actions.
Usability and design guru Donald Norman's latest book, The Design of Future Things, is excellent, though a bit slim for a pricey hardcover. Norman focuses in this book on new "intelligent" technologies that we don't just interact with -- we communicate with them, or rather they communicate with us when they deem it necessary. Most of his examples are of sophisticated AI systems in cars that do things like: stop you from changing lanes unexpectedly, adjust the automatic cruise control according to the distance to the car ahead, or even a system that monitors video of the driver to spot when he nods off. All of those systems are in cars now and others are on the way including cars that communicate with each other and drive themselves in swarms down the highway. The book also contains chapters on smart houses and home robots. Norman draws from cognitive psychology and human factors engineering to illustrate the risks of bad designs in such systems, and he offers up several guiding principles. Norman doesn't question the need for any of these new technologies; for him the benefits always outweigh the risks and the emphasis is on achieving good designs.
Rethinking Expertise: "Harry Collins and Robert Evans offer a radical new perspective on the
role of expertise in the practice of science and the public evaluation
Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy by Gwyneth Cravens is the latest environmentalist-turned-pro-nuke conversion story. I find the factoids and links offered up on the website underwhelming, and a quick look through the book gave me the impression it's more of a personal narrative with reassuring exhortations from experts than an in-depth analysis. But I could be wrong.
Print is Dead by Jeff Gomez, the latest book to rehash the perennial "future of books" debate, is now available. I've listened to podcasts of a few chapters and was not terribly impressed. He's a thoughtful writer, and has done a decent amount of research, but his premises and arguments are seriously flawed, in my opinion.
Novelist John Degen explains why copyright is important to writers: Copyright = Oxygen. He includes an excellent rant by Harlan Ellison on the topic (at YouTube).
Derek Cheshire proposes a slow approach to innovation, taking its cue from the Slow Food movement: Slow Innovation (Change This). I once considered rebranding this blog as "Slow Technology", for the same reason, but that didn't get far.
An amusing post (and reader comments) at Sean Lindsey's blog, 101 Reasons to Stop Writing:
Pundits have been predicting for years that
ebooks and ebook devices will eventually, finally, once and for all
free us from the tyranny of having to carry around more than one book
when we travel. This neotopian vision of a paperless, rights-managed
future took one giant stumble forward last week with the launch of the Amazon Kindle ebook reader.
For those of you who think that books made of wood just aren’t
portable enough, and want a book that you can’t loan to a friend, will
be utterly ruined if you drop it in the bath, and looks like it was
made by the props department from Space: 1999, then perhaps the Kindle is for you.
Whither the name ‘Kindle’, I’m not sure, but I think any word that
connotes ‘burning’ probably shouldn’t be part of a book product
promotion (unless you’re promoting International Slushpile Bonfire Day).
Book designer extraordinaire Chip Kidd comments on the design of Amazon's Kindle:
[...] books were always physical objects, and the printed book as a piece of
technology has yet to be improved upon. And won’t. Certainly not by
something that looks like a prop from Charlie’s Angels and has, are you
ready, a whopping ONE typeface. For everything! Yay! For further
explanation as to why this is doomed, go to Amazon’s own website and
read Kindle’s Customer Reviews. Ouch. Caveat emptor!
Valleywag points to a big flaw in Amazon's Kindle magazine subscriptions: the device can't display pictures worth crap. They quote a reviewer:
This is a rather embarrassing electronic version of Time Magazine.
There are NO pictures, no charts, no illustrations. Instead whenever
you run into an article that has these in any decent amount, they've
inserted an entry telling you to go get a PDF or print version. The
salvation here is that their MOBILE web site at least has some images
(even if impossibly small) and seems better formatted and organized. It
looks and feels like some cheap RSS reader collected this rather than
being an electronic version of the magazine.
Kindle supporters may be willing to overlook this flaw, but Amazon
cannot afford to. Amazon is depending on subscription revenues derived
mostly from newspapers, magazines, and blogs to subsidize its free
Internet connectivity. If image-rich content, including most magazines,
fail to catch on, it could be a serious blow to Amazon's plans to make
See also this design dissection by Thibault Sally: Bookishness.
E-ink/e-paper has been hyped for years now and I don't quite get it. To my layperson's eye it's just a high-resolution LCD without a backlight. Plus it's slow to update, and it goes black every time you flip a page. LCD's have always been crisp; so now we have a smooth, rounded typeface instead of segmented character displays -- big deal. And I used to have a late 80's mac portable that had the 'innovation' of not having a backlight, and that was just an irritation. (Kindle's white plastic design is also reminiscent of the mac portable.)
I think e-books will have their place, especially for commuters and others on the go, but Apple is a lot closer to a usable solution with the iPhone and iPod Touch. They've got beautiful screens and good interfaces. E-books at the iTunes store can't be long in coming now.
Siva Vaidhyanathan has launched a new blog to go with his "book in progress," The Googlization of Everything: How One Company is Disrupting Culture, Commerce, and Community -- and Why We Should Worry.
From his introductory post:
Hi. Welcome to my new book. Well, it’s not a book yet. In fact, it will not be a real book for a long time.
As you can tell from the title of this blog, the book will be about
Google and all they ways that Google is shaking up the world. Google is
a transformative and revolutionary company. I hesitate to use terms
like that. We live in an era of hyperbole. So I try my best to discount
claims of historical transformation or communicative revolutions.
But in the case of Google, I am confident it is both.
Now, I am approaching this book as both a fan and a critic. I am in
awe of all that Google has done and all it hopes to do. I am also wary
of its ambition and power.
As I use this site to compose the manuscript (an archaic word that I
love too much to discard) for the book The Googlization of Everything,
I hope to do so with your help.