Looking at the Moon

“Why is looking at the moon somehow perceived to be more ‘present’ than looking at your phone?”

This article (well worth the read) about phones, our attention, and all that stuff, doesn’t include the word ‘addiction’ anywhere. Nor does it include the word ‘balance’. It’s a fine article for discussing type of attention, but not about degree.

To answer the quote above: When driving a car (among other things in life) both excessive looking at a phone and looking at the moon are dangerously un-present.

Cultural Racism

I’ve been thinking about that Loury and McWhorter video again – it’s difficult not to think about racism these past few days. Stars and stripes are in the news.

The term ‘structural racism’ comes up at one point in the video, a term that McWhorter takes issue with because of it’s lack on involvement with people, the human. Perhaps the concept is better stated as ‘cultural racism’. Culture does involve people and humans and their learned behavior. Racism is certainly a part of American culture, as it is in many countries around the world. For various reasons, America’s racism is more extreme, more tragic.

Cultures don’t change quickly, they go through centuries of evolution – extended debate, civil wars, policy and law reform, budgets, and elections. The process of cultural change is a process that a culture or society usually undergoes, rather than actively decides. But does this need to be the case? Are we at a point that masses of people, through the help of certain technology, can start to make conscious decisions about the evolution of their culture?

This next election is turning out to be a critical point America’s long struggle with cultural racism. For one political party, it’s still an advantage to avoid openly condemning racism. Until it becomes a disadvantage for that party, until they lose more at the polls than they gain (the only thing political parties care about), they won’t condemn racism.

Technology has been a magnifying glass on society in the social media age – the good, the bad, the lingering behaviors that have been slow to mature. Perhaps technology can also be used as a reactive instrument in confronting exposed cultural flaws. It may be a lot to hope for, but as someone watching America from the outside, I hope the many, many people in America who detest their cultural racism decide to make this next election about racism and racism only.

Technology can help spread the message that if a political party won’t openly condemn racism, then they will never stand a chance at winning an election, regardless of any of their other beliefs. Democracy is meant to be representational, but it can also be representation full of aspiration.

Aspiring towards a conscious shift in culture is a massive outcome to hope for. America itself is also a massive place, with an amazing, still developing, culture.


Attending to Reciprocity

To start off Attending to Technology, Jacobs writes about the ‘Attending’ part of the title, or what it means to give attention to someone or something:

What we fail to perceive we have on some level chosen not to perceive; we have looked away; we have allowed indifference to have sway over us. Genuinely to attend is to give of oneself with intent; it is to say: For as long as I contemplate this person, or this experience, or even this thing, I grant it a degree of dominion over me. But I will choose where my attention goes; it is in my power to grant or withhold.

The choice to use “Attending” in this thesis is fantastic, and gives this exploration of technology a fresh feeling. To think about our own attention is to consider such questions as:

Do I really have the power to grant or withhold? If not, how might I acquire that power? And even if I possess it, on what grounds do I decide how to use it?

In answering, I suspect that Ursula Franklin would use the word reciprocity. How can we increase (or force) reciprocity when we communicate? Or, even, how can we use reciprocity to change the increasingly tendency for interaction back into a form of actual communication:

In general, technical arrangements reduce or eliminate reciprocity. Reciprocity is some manner of give and take, a genuine communication among interacting parties.

Apparent Confusion

I can’t seem to get that Facebook/Microsoft Ocean Length Cable story out of my mind. I’m looking through an infrastructure lens of late, mostly because I wonder if this is the next step for tech company giants.

To what extent does the description of Facebook below change if FB continues to build more massive infrastructure projects? The confusion described below is solved by altering the structure of the internet to fit (or, catch up with) the language of the people in Indonesia. From Attending to Technology:

In May 2012, some researchers reported their surprise at learning that many people in Indonesia said they did not use the Internet but they did use Facebook. Similar patterns have since been observed elsewhere. The researchers are not sure precisely what these people mean, but the most likely explanation is that their online lives happen wholly, or almost wholly, on Facebook; if they click links that take them out of Facebook, they are not aware of that. This apparent confusion is likely to spread as Facebook continues to roll out its Internet.org, which provides for a number of developing countries free mobile Internet access — limited to particular services.

An innocent reading of this phenomenon would say that it is a version of calling all soft drinks “Coke”; a less innocent one would say that it is like the world envisioned by WALL-E, a world in which both the ruined Earth and the spaceships that allow people to escape from it are controlled by the megacorporation Buy n Large.

The innocent reading perhaps isn’t so innocent. Calling all soft-drinks “Coke” (or, a “Coke Product”) is more accurate now than was the case when this version of the phenomenon started. Buy a beverage at the store, call it a Coke, and chances are that you’re correct.

Will referring to the internet or the WWW as “Facebook” eventually have similar odds?

Tech Blind Spots

enabling platform


There’s something to be said about the decision of where to spend large amounts of money on infrastructure and on (as Andrew Keen states in the quote above) ‘public projects’. There would be even more to say on who should makes these decisions.

Education in recent years has had it’s own balancing issues between What vs the How. This quote from John Seely Brown:

What do we mean by “social learning”? Perhaps the simplest way to explain this concept is to note that social learning is based on the premise that our understanding of content is socially constructed through conversations about that content and through grounded interactions, especially with others, around problems or actions. The focus is not so much on what we are learning but on how we are learning.

What society decides to make matters for what it will become, and what individuals decide to learn matters for who they will become.

Everyone working in EdTech knows that you’re never never ever supposed to choose technology for technology’s sake – I read stuff, I wonder how large the blind spots are in our culture’s technology infatuation.

Learner Benefits

One of the things I’ve learned from reading Ursula Franklin is the important role that infrastructure has with technology and on society:

Since the time of the Industrial Revolution the growth and development of tech has required as a necessary prerequisite a support relationship from governments and public institutions that did not exist in earlier times.

She goes on to talk about the divisible and indivisible benefits of infrastructure, and how infrastructure technology has shifted its role over time from indivisible benefits to divisible ones. With tech company infrastructures, they’ve taken it a step further and bundled benefits:

Another way apps hijack you is by taking your reasons for visiting the app (to perform a task) and make them inseparable from the app’s business reasons (maximizing how much we consume once we’re there).

(I urge you to read the entire post, it is great: https://medium.com/@tristanharris/how-technology-hijacks-peoples-minds-from-a-magician-and-google-s-design-ethicist-56d62ef5edf3#.yxx3qvjuk)

Presumably tech companies bundle the benefits because people aren’t as hooked in to their product and they are to their government. (You can’t take your tax dollar elsewhere)

Educational institutions are not tech companies, but they do have departments that need to make infrastructure decisions that will create certain benefits. To what degree these choices will benefit learners might be considered in terms of divisible or indivisible benefits. Learners can benefit foremost from infrastructure decisions, or they can be bundled in as an after-thought, expected to be the ones to adapt.

Distance as Center

I just finished a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. It’s a book from the early 1980s that takes a television specific look at how technology and media influence North American society. The book may be a bit dated in that TV is no longer the apex of mass communication that it was 30 years ago, although from several other perspectives many of the ideas in the book transfer well to other technology and media contexts. I love these types of books – books on tech that are just a few decades old – because they present ideas about the effects of tech and media on a simpler backdrop.

The book ends (the last 2 chapters) with some strong ideas, one of which is that education curriculum is bending toward the particular affordances of television. A related point that Postman makes is that because television is so prevalent in everyday life (he states that teenagers watch 16,000 hrs of TV by High School graduation) schools have simply forgotten to question television’s character.
Looking back at this claim from 2015, we can easily see the limitations of mere television broadcasting. And we now know that it is much better to unquestioningly prepare our educational systems for a “21st century world” in which digital technology, asynchronous communication, and social learning are the real tech and media powerhouses that the next generation will inherit. Right?
No, not right.
Despite being written in 1985 and focusing specifically on television, the 2nd last paragraph of the book provides a timeless quote:
“…it is an acknowledged task of the schools to assist the young in learning how to interpret the symbols of their culture. That this task should now require that they learn how to distance themselves from their forms of information is not so bizarre an enterprise that we cannot hope for its inclusion in the curriculum; even hope that it will be placed at the center of education.”