Tag Archives: Technology

Why Don’t We Work Less?

workers working

At a recent conference in Detroit, billionaire Jack Ma, founder of the online marketplace Alibaba, told CNBC that, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, people will soon work less.

“I think in the next 30 years, people only work four hours a day and maybe four days a week,” Ma said. “My grandfather worked 16 hours a day in the farmland and [thought he was] very busy. We work eight hours, five days a week and think we are very busy.”

People have been making this prediction for generations. Economist John Maynard Keynes posited, in an essay published a year after the 1929 Wall Street crash, that his grandchildren would work 15-hour weeks, with five-day weekends. In 2015, NPR caught up with some of his descendants and discovered Keynes — who, according to his grand-nephew died “from working too hard” — was wrong. His grand-nephew reported working over 100 hours a week as a professor, and his grand-niece, a self-employed psychotherapist, said she has to write in her agenda “not working” to remind herself to take breaks.
Read more…

In Silicon Valley, Transportation Innovation Is a Flat Circle

Ride-sharing app Lyft has a new service available in Chicago and San Francisco that they’re calling a “shuttle.” According to Lifehacker, it works like this:

Lyfts can add up fast and Lyft Line, while less expensive, can take you out of your way and make your travel time much longer.

Lyft Shuttle addresses both those issues by having you walk to a nearby pick up spot, get in a shared car that follows a pre-designated route, and drops you (and everyone else) off at the same stop. So, basically, you share a ride with other people (most of the time) so your ride price is lower, but you know exactly how long the ride will take because you’re on a pre-designated route.

Sounds… familiar. Wait a second.

Read more…

A Sociology of the Smartphone

Adam Greenfield | Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life | Verso | June 2017 | 27 minutes (7,433 words) 

 

Below is an excerpt from Radical Technologies, by Adam Greenfield. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

They are the last thing we look at before sleep each night, and the first thing we reach for upon waking.

The smartphone is the signature artifact of our age. Less than a decade old, this protean object has become the universal, all-but-indispensable mediator of everyday life. Very few manufactured objects have ever been as ubiquitous as these glowing slabs of polycarbonate.

For many of us, they are the last thing we look at before sleep each night, and the first thing we reach for upon waking. We use them to meet people, to communicate, to entertain ourselves, and to find our way around. We buy and sell things with them. We rely on them to document the places we go, the things we do and the company we keep; we count on them to fill the dead spaces, the still moments and silences that used to occupy so much of our lives.

They have altered the texture of everyday life just about everywhere, digesting many longstanding spaces and rituals in their entirety, and transforming others beyond recognition. At this juncture in history, it simply isn’t possible to understand the ways in which we know and use the world around us without having some sense for the way the smartphone works, and the various infrastructures it depends on.

For all its ubiquity, though, the smartphone is not a simple thing. We use it so often that we don’t see it clearly; it appeared in our lives so suddenly and totally that the scale and force of the changes it has occasioned have largely receded from conscious awareness. In order to truly take the measure of these changes, we need to take a step or two back, to the very last historical moment in which we negotiated the world without smartphone in hand. Read more…

The Internet Won’t Prioritize Quality Without an Intervention

In an interview with The New York Times, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams admits to David Streitfeld that he thinks the internet is broken — and apologizes for the role Twitter played in the ascendency of Donald Trump.

President Trump has said he believes Twitter put him in the White House. Recently, Mr. Williams heard the claim for the first time. He mulled it over for a bit, sitting in his Medium office, which is noteworthy only for not having a desk.

“It’s a very bad thing, Twitter’s role in that,” he said finally. “If it’s true that he wouldn’t be president if it weren’t for Twitter, then yeah, I’m sorry.”

Trump’s campaign slogan may as well have been Extremity First, a strategy his supporters considered the conscious technique of a mastermind playing 4D chess with the media. What the internet is missing, Williams argues, is an ethical framework, a new business model that will introduce a market correction to what the internet perceives as user demand for extremism:

The trouble with the internet, Mr. Williams says, is that it rewards extremes. Say you’re driving down the road and see a car crash. Of course you look. Everyone looks. The internet interprets behavior like this to mean everyone is asking for car crashes, so it tries to supply them.

His goal is to break this pattern. “If I learn that every time I drive down this road I’m going to see more and more car crashes,” he says, “I’m going to take a different road.”

But a new road may have other problems. It may, for instance, be a dead end.

Mr. Williams isn’t the only one trying to fix this mess, of course. If he and others can’t find a path forward, if they can’t solve what he calls “the architecture of content creation, distribution and monetization on the internet,” there are unsettling implications for the future of news and ideas. Maybe it will be all car crashes, all the time. Twitter already feels like that.

Williams has been attempting to course-correct with Medium, a publishing platform conceived to intervene on this vicious cycle of misinterpreted rubbernecking with an ad-free, subscription-based business model. Medium’s successes have been tempered and debatable, while its missteps, like so many of the internet’s favorite car wrecks, have been more memorable. (Williams announced layoffs in a blog post before all the sunsetting employees were informed, shocking investors and publishing partners alike; when Williams introduced the $5 subscription model, Bryan Clark published an op-ed titled Ev Williams has lost his goddamn mind.)

While the need for an intervention is readily apparent, the question of how to make publishing sustainable — in spite of, or by somehow newly leveraging, the internet’s existing mosaic of incentives — continues to pose considerable challenges to the viability of new approaches to funding. As fellow Twitter cofounder Biz Stone has said in response to Williams’ statement that he wants to make publishing profitable: “Yeah, so does everyone else.”

Read the story

How Tiny, Yet Über-Efficient Spider Brains Can Improve Computer Technology

In Scientific American, Erik Vance reports on how the orb weaver spider — a creature that weighs between .005 milligrams and three grams — has a brain that is just as adept at complex tasks as exponentially larger spiders. This “brain miniaturization” “may hold clues to innovative design strategies that engineers might incorporate in future generations of computers.”

The world’s smallest arachnid, the Samoan moss spider, is at a third of a millimeter nearly invisible to the human eye. The largest spider in the world is the goliath birdeater tarantula, which weighs 5 ounces and is about the size of a dinner plate. For reference, that is about the same difference in scale between that same tarantula and a bottlenose dolphin.

And yet the bigger spider does not act in more complex ways than its tiny counterpart. “Insects and spiders and the like—in terms of absolute size—have among the tiniest brains we’ve come across,” says William Wcislo, a scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City. “But their behavior, as far as we can see, is as sophisticated as things that have relatively large brains. So then there’s the question: How do they do that?”

Read the story

We’re Living in the Golden Age of the Corporate Takedown

Miki Agrawal, co-founder and “She-EO” of menstrual underwear phenom Thinx, raised eyebrows when she stepped down from her role in the company in early March. Agrawal had long been infamous for her company’s boundary-pushing ads and her well-publicized hesitance to use the word “feminist.” Within days of Agrawal’s announcement, Racked published a gripping article examining corporate dysfunction and alleged sexism at Thinx, and Agrawal struck back with a lengthy post on Medium that detailed her “incredible ride” with the company. “I didn’t put HR practices in place because I was on the road speaking, doing press, brand partnerships, editing all of the creative and shouting from the rooftops about Thinx,” she wrote. Less than a week later, Agrawal was accused of sexual harassment by a former employee.

Such is the power of the corporate hit piece: Fueled by eyewitness accounts, scorned ex-employees, and juicy tidbits about a CEO’s bad behavior, a corporate identity that took years to build can unravel in days. These piquant stories might smack of a slow-motion trainwreck, but they satisfy more than our inner gossips and gawkers. Today, the myth of a CEO is often of their own making—once minted by years of climbing the corporate ladder, now CEOs are made in weeks or months. CEO, we are told, is less a work status than a state of mind.

Read more…

‘Why Pay for Therapy When the Advice of Strangers Has Proven to Be Helpful and Free?’

At The Verge, Ben Popper takes a look at Koko, a startup with an app that helps people connect and provide emotional support to peers and, in the process, allows them to recognize and “rethink” their own problems:

The Koko app starts users off with a short tutorial on “rethinking.” The app explains that rethinking isn’t about solving problems, but offering a more optimistic take. It uses memes and cartoons to illustrate the idea: if you choose the right reframe, a cute puppy offers his paw for a high-five. The app walks new users through posts and potential reframes, indicating which rethinks are good and which aren’t. The tutorial can be completed in as little as five minutes.

Once users finish the tutorial, they can scroll through live posts on the site. Despite the minimal training, the issues they are confronted with can be quite serious: an individual who is afraid to tell her family that she’s taking anti-depressants because they might think she’s crazy; a user stressed from school who believes “no one actually likes the real me, and if they see it, they will hate me”; a user with an abusive boyfriend who has come to feel “I am a failure and worth being yelled at.” I walked a friend through the tutorial recently, and they were shocked by how quickly Koko throws you into the deep end of human despair.

Koko lets you write anything you want for a rethink, but also offers simple prompts: “This could turn out better than you think because…,” “A more balanced take on this could be…,” etc. The company screens both the posts and rethinks before they become public, attempting to direct certain users to critical care and weed trolls out of the system. Originally, this was accomplished with human moderators, but increasingly, the company is turning to AI.

Accepting and offering rethinks is meant to help users get away from bad mental habits, cycles of negative thought that can perpetuate their anxiety and depression. Over the next few months, Zelig found herself offering rethinks of other Koko users almost every day. “Having it in your pocket is really good. All of sudden it would hit me what I needed say in the reframe, so I would pull my car over, or stand in the produce aisle.”

In the process of giving advice Zelig felt, almost immediately, a sense of relief and control. She began to recognize her own dark moods as variations on the problems she was helping others with. Zelig says the peculiar power of Koko is that by helping others, users are able to help themselves.

Read the story

When a YouTube Video Almost Made the Modular Smartphone Happen

Failure stories come in two distinct flavors: “We almost had it all!” and schadenfreude. At VentureBeat, Harrison Weber’s tale of Google’s suspended project to build a modular smartphone is distinctly of the first type. It channels the excitement of the people who tried to make it happen — and the wistfulness of those who find it hard to let go. More than anything else, though, it shows how hard it to translate a cool, lightbulb-moment idea into a viable product.

“I had an old camera that I broke and I couldn’t really fix it. So I took it apart and I noticed all the components were still pretty good, except for one thing.”

“I thought: Isn’t that weird that we throw everything away just because one part is broken?” said Hakkens.

“At first, I wanted to make a phone that lasts 100 years. But then I realized, I kind of like technology — that it evolves, that it gets better. The only downside is that after it gets better, we throw everything away. I started looking into it, and it generates a lot of e-waste… I mean now we have some devices, but in the future it’s thermostats, fridges, microwaves — everything will be connected. So what if a chip breaks in your fridge? Do you just throw the entire thing away?”

The Phonebloks story spread like wildfire. Gadget blogs covered it en masse, hordes of supporters signed up to support, tweet, and share the idea with a viral marketing tool called Thunderclap, and developers fired back, saying it couldn’t be done — that it was impossible to build. Perhaps they had a point.

Read the story

What Was Virtual Reality?

If you visited a tech blog in the past two years, you will have undoubtedly noticed: no topic has been generating more buzz than non-real-reality (virtual, mixed, augmented—pick your flavor).

One of the more fascinating aspects of this tidal wave of excitement (and venture capital) is its obliviousness to its own history — a rich tradition of gamers, tech geeks, and scientists building and hyping virtual worlds. At Backchannel, a reprint of “Being in Nothingness” by John Perry Barlow, a seminal essay from 1990, shows the uncanny similarties between our current conversations and the obsession over “cyberspace” 30 years ago. It also brings home a crucial point: that cutting-edge technology is not only about slick, robot-filled futures; it’s fueled just as much by our undepletable nostalgic longings.

The list of possibilities is literally bounded only by the imagination. Working bodies for the damaged. Teleconferencing with body language. Virtual surgery. Hey, this is a practical thing to do!

And yet I suspect that something else altogether, something not so practical, is at the root of these yearnings. Why do we really want to develop Virtual Reality? There seems to be a flavor of longing here which I associate with the desire to converse with aliens or dolphins or the never-born.

On some level, I think we can now see the potential for technology, long about the business of making the metaphorical literal, of reversing the process and re-infecting ordinary reality with luminous magic.

Or maybe this is just another expression of what may be the third oldest human urge, the desire to have visions. Maybe we want to get high.

Read the story

Your Phone Was Made By Slaves: A Primer on the Secret Economy

Kevin Bales | Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World | Spiegel & Grau | January 2016 | 34 minutes (9,162 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from Blood and Earth, by Kevin Bales, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

We think of Steve Jobs in his black turtleneck as the origin of our iPhones.

It’s never a happy moment when you’re shopping for a tombstone. When death comes, it’s the loss that transcends everything else and most tombstones are purchased in a fog of grief. Death is a threshold for the relatives and friends who live on as well, changing lives in both intense and subtle ways. It’s the most dramatic and yet the most mundane event of a life, something we all do, no exceptions, no passes.

Given the predictability of death it seems strange that Germany has a tombstone shortage. It’s not because they don’t know that people are going to die; it’s more a product of the complete control the government exerts over death and funerals. Everyone who dies must be embalmed before burial, for example, and the cremated can be buried only in approved cemeteries, never scattered in gardens or the sea. Rules abound about funerals and tombstones—even the size, quality, and form of coffins and crypts are officially regulated. All this leads to a darkly humorous yet common saying: “If you feel unwell, take a vacation—you can’t afford to die in Germany.”

Granite for German tombstones used to come from the beautiful Harz Mountains, but now no one is allowed to mine there and risk spoiling this protected national park and favorite tourist destination. So, like France and many other rich countries, including the United States, Germany imports its tombstones from the developing world.

Some of the best and cheapest tombstones come from India. In 2013 India produced 35,342 million tons of granite, making it the world’s largest producer. Add to this a growing demand for granite kitchen countertops in America and Europe, and business is booming. There are more precious minerals of course, but fortunes can be made in granite. In the United States, the average cost of installing those countertops runs from $2,000 to $8,000, but the price charged by Indian exporters for polished red granite is just $5 to $15 per square meter—that comes to about $100 for all the granite your kitchen needs. The markup on tombstones is equally high. The red granite tombstones that sell for $500 to $1,000 in the United States, and more in Europe, are purchased in bulk from India for as little as $50, plus a US import duty of just 3.7 percent.

Leaving aside what this says about the high cost of dying, how can granite be so cheap? The whole point of granite, that it is hard and durable, is also the reason it is difficult to mine and process. It has to be carefully removed from quarries in large thin slabs, so you can’t just go in with dynamite and bulldozers. Careful handling means handwork, which requires people with drills and chisels, hammers and crowbars gently working the granite out of the ground. And in India, the most cost effective way to achieve that is slavery. Read more…