Essays on Technology and Culture

Barriers to the Meritocracy

After the hackathon was over, Maurice gathered every team member’s contact information and wrote it all down on the back of the business card I gave him. Later that night, I received a phone call from him, and he asked if I would be able to teach him how to code. I love teaching, and Maurice seemed like a nice kid, so I offered to help. He immediately said, “okay, go,” and awaited instruction. I explained that I wouldn’t be able to teach him over the phone, but then I found out that he didn’t have internet at home. If that surprises you, you should know that this is actually a bit more common than you may think.

Tech’s High Barrier to Entry for the Underprivileged — Backchannel — Medium

This is why the so-called “meritocracy” of technology is bullshit. When someone is so poor that they can’t afford Internet access, or even a computer, how can they learn to program in the first place? Tech is only a “meritocracy” if you are privileged enough to have the first rung of the ladder in reach. Few kids are as lucky as Maurice is to have people helping him.

Read First, and Hit the Send Key Later

People can say a thing on Twitter thinking they are being clever or funny, seeking attention and recognition for their clever funniness. But sometimes when seen from another perspective, the thing they have said makes them come across in a less than positive way—and on Twitter the leap from doing something mildly objectionable to being considered by many to be a colossal scumbag is very short. This in itself can create problems, as the rejection of one faction can shove people towards others. A person might feel like a bridge has been burned before they even got to cross it, so maybe they’ll just saunter off to hang out with some actual colossal scumbags. The process of groups aggressively rebuffing people who do not immediately measure up to their standards can be damaging in the longer term.

Growing Up Without Twitter Saved Me From Embarrassment | The New Republic

Anger, outrage, and hatred all existed long before Twitter. Nobody disputes this. The problem is that Twitter, and most other social media, right down to website comments, are designed to promote quick bursts of emotionally charged responses. That’s what “wins.” Twitter doesn’t reward thoughtfulness, consideration, or even moderation.

Phil Hartup includes some thoughtful choices for direct action one can take to make the healthy debates that Twitter can create more likely to occur. We should all take them up.

The Rest of the World isn’t Silicon Valley

The world of Silicon Valley isn’t like the rest of the world in many ways. I’ve written in the past about how location and context awareness break down in the urban density of New York City. It’s a lot easier for GPS-based location services to pin you down when all the places you go are separated by more than a quarter-mile. The sprawling suburbs of the southern Bay Area where so much of this technology is born presents a way of life that is alien to many, and if any of it is going to catch on and spread, it’ll have to adapt to our way of life, not the other way around.

Electric cars, as an example, are currently ill-suited to East Coast urban environments. In cities, many people lack dedicated, private parking to plug a Tesla in. No garages, no carports, no driveways. It’s either on-street parking, or not owning a car at all. So, where is a theoretical Tesla owner with no private parking space going to charge their car at home? Short of communal parking lots with charging stations, which would be tricky in places with high land value and existing construction, I can’t see a reasonable solution for residential areas. In downtowns, though, the first city to roll out combination parking meters and car charging stations stands to make a killing.

With home ownership rates falling, particularly among younger, and likely more tech savvy adults, I wonder how well the latest batch of “smart home” hardware will do. Many leases, for homes and apartments alike, don’t allow for replacement of major home hardware. Even installing simpler hardware like “smart” light switches wouldn’t be worth the hassle if you don’t plan to stay permanently. And I’m still not convinced that adding “smarts” to simple, functional hardware is an improvement, and not just adding more points of failure. [1]

Google’s self-driving car works well enough in the wide streets and highways of car-centered Silicon Valley. I’d like to see how well one deals with rush hour traffic in Manhattan. dealing with delivery trucks, fare-seeking cabbies, suicidally crazy bike messengers, and the typically lackadaisical attitude towards traffic of New York pedestrians—author included—is taxing enough for human drivers. I can’t see AI being an improvement. I could see self-driving technologies applied to urban busses, but even then dedicated bus lanes, or good old-fashioned light rail are more reliable, thought the latter is pricier.

It’s possible that most of these issues will be worked out in time for mass adoption. The only thing I’m truly skeptical of is wide adoption the self-driving car. With the global rates of people living in dense urban environments already high, and growing, if the businesses behind these technologies want real mass adoption, they’ll have to figure it out. Shaping the technology of the future is a give and take process, and right now it’s more give than take.

  1. I’m still amused that adding a computer to a device makes it “smart,” when the first thing I was taught about computers is that they’re dumber than a box of rocks.  ↩

Boxes of Change

I am good with computers so I know these ways. I understand the conventions of computing. I understand them because that’s what I’m interested in and where I’ve spent my time. I enjoy computers and what I can do with them.

But not everybody does.

In fact, I’d wager most people don’t enjoy their interactions with computers. They’re confusing. Why? Because they’re unpredictable. Doing the same thing over and over doesn’t always produce the same result.

Computers are not predictable | Tech in the Trenches

One of the reasons why tablets and smartphones are becoming popular ways to use technology is that they’re far more predictable. Less cognitive overhead, and consistent user experience make these device much easier for ordinary people to grasp.

Freedom from Notifications

How many apps do you allow to interrupt you on your devices?

Notification fatigue is a real issue, and with seemingly every app on phones asking if they can pester you out of the gate, it’s way too easy to get overwhelmed. Enough so that there’s a new, growing market for gizmos you can wear on your wrist that’ll keep you from pulling out your phone to see what stupid app just buzzed you. At least, that’s how a lot of companies market smart watches. Is moving notifications from the pocket to the wrist going to be an improvement? I doubt it. As evidence, even Apple Watch is going to force you to winnow down your notifications anyway if the rumors are true. So why wait?

Real data on push notification adoption is hard to get. A cursory Googling says either 52% of people turn notifications on, or 60% of people turn them off. And with the granularity of app-by-app notifications settings, there’s really no good way to tell from here. I am confident enough in user behavior to say that most people, once they allow push notifications for an app, will never turn them off—though they might uninstall particularly gross offenders. Regardless, it’s time we take control over the things that make our phones beep, buzz, and shake, for a quieter, saner technology lifestyle.

How many of the notifications you get are things you need to deal with right away, anyway? Merlin Mann was harping about this sort of thing in 2007, with the original Inbox Zero talk. If an email client on your phone, or your desktop, or both, is dinging you with a new email every 5 minutes, you’re getting a notification 24,000 times per year. Even if you have Do Not Disturb turned on while you sleep, you’re still getting nearly 200 buzzes per day. For email. And moving it to your wrist is supposed to help?

Look at the apps that you have given explicit permission to bother you. Do it now. How many pages is it? I have twelve apps that are allowed to interrupt what I’m doing, though when I started this, I had closer to twenty. Look at each of them and decide if each app is allowed to pull you away from whatever you’re doing, be it playing Threes! or doing your day job. Think about how often they interrupt you, and what they interrupt you for. I love Overcast, and I love podcasts, but do I need to know the moment every podcast I listen to updates? Of course not. So I took it out of my notification center, and denied it the right to make my phone buzz and beep when a new podcast comes in.

One of the great things in iOS 8 is that there’s now a global toggle for notifications for each app on your device in the Settings app. When an app has pushed you past the limit, just go into Settings, scroll to the listing for the offending app, tap it, tap “Notifications”, and turn it all off. Banish the banners and the pop-ups to the hell from whence they came. [1] I can’t speak for Android, but I imagine the process is similar. All too often, however, we’re left to inertia. Changing settings remains a power user move that the average person doesn’t do. It’s time to start.

Repeat after me, friends: “And if thy new app’s push notifications offend thee, cut it off!”

  1. One reason I didn’t get that App Store push notification to promote Project (RED) is that I turned off notifications from the App Store. I don’t need to know when there’s an update, or if apps were updated. I’ll know—though I do keep the badge on.  ↩