What we read this week (12 July)

Emulating brains to improve businesses, differing perspectives on what cryptography is, the story of urban planner Robert Moses, and Prism and The Californian Ideology.

Quote of the week

Digital communities are a perfect hallucinatory cocktail of hyper-tech building and idealised nature.

Sam Jacobs

Articles of the week

  • What the Digital Brains of the Future Might Be Like
    Alexis Madrigal interviews Jeff Hawkins, entrepreneur and neuroscience buff, on his new company Grok and how to help businesses automate some of their processes by emulating the human brain.
  • Is Cryptography Engineering or Science?
    Bruce Schneier on two conceptions of cryptography – the theoretical, mathematical component in which cryptographic algorithms are developed, and the implementation of these algorithms as usable products. As he sees it, “the world needs security engineers even more than it needs cryptographers. We’re great at mathematically secure cryptography, and terrible at using those tools to engineer secure systems.”
  • In the footsteps of Robert Moses
    On a road trip and discovering the work and impact of Robert Moses, the power-hungry “quasi-dictator” of New York City urban planning from the Great Depression to the post-WWII years.
  • “Prism is the dark side of design thinking”
    Sam Jacobs on design thinking’s effects on digital culture, and our understanding of public and private, looking in particular at Prism as an example of the inversion of what the openness of digital culture set out to accomplish.
  • The Californian Ideology
    We stumbled upon this essay by English media theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron of the University of Westminster via Sam Jacob’s article. Written in 1995, it’s a description of the thinking of Silicon Valley as “a fatalistic vision of the natural and inevitable triumph of the hi-tech free market – a vision which is blind to racism, poverty and environmental degradation and which has no time to debate alternatives.” More than 20 years later, the analysis seems more on point then ever.

Week 138

Maddie’s last week note: learnings and thank-yous.

My last official day at Third Wave is coming up, and I’m currently wrapping up our project on technology and autodidactic learning, which you can expect to see very shortly. Hence, a couple critical things I’ve learnt both from the day-to-day of working in a small team (and more specifically with Igor and Johannes), as well as from our work in consulting.

Avoiding stagnation, being honest, practicing

A lot of human time and energy is spent sweeping dust under rugs rather than just getting out the hoover. It’s costly and unsustainable to ignore problems and hope they go away. Recurrent problems especially are worth inspecting closely and discussing, since they reveal systematic conditions or persistent behaviors that can be changed. It is, therefore, best to be the one who gets out the hoover, or at least to work with people who are good at hoovering (and are, I might add, allergic to dust in both metaphor and reality). Discussing issues as they come up keeps things moving, and this is far preferable for everyone’s mental health and productivity than pretending nothing’s up.

Being honest – and by this I mean being clear about how you feel and what you think, as opposed to “not lying” – prevents known issues from cropping up again, and keeps everyone on the same page. Staying silent on matters of importance, whether out of concern for one’s pride, a fear of offending someone, or some other reason, is usually a bad choice and stands in the way of improvement. Here it has been refreshingly different from other environments I’ve experienced – issues are brought to the surface and dealt with in a matter-of-fact, reasonable way. An observation on this topic: it helps promote the conversation needed for these issues to come up when everyone sits close to each other.

I’ve been taught the importance of not just doing what you’re good at, but doing things you’re not so good at over and over again until you get better at them. This is easy to forget, and this notion of “leaning into the pain” is one that I find myself coming back to frequently.

Thank-yous

I consider myself very lucky to have met Jasmine Probst, who worked with us for a regrettably brief two months. She taught me much more than she probably realizes, and it was nothing short of inspiring to work with her and get to know her.

Our friend Peter Rukavina wrote me a touching, encouraging email straight after I’d announced that I was planning on changing tracks – I’d like to thank him, too, because that email saved me a couple of times when I was rather in doubt about the soundness of my decisions.

I am as ever indebted to Johannes and Igor for being both excellent bosses and thoughtful people, for setting a great example for me, and for being consistently supportive and helpful, no matter what. As an employee, it’s wonderful to know you’re respected and that your opinion matters – this will seem to them so obvious it isn’t worth mentioning, but I have benefitted from it and greatly appreciate it.

Three cheers for Third Wave and a wonderful year and a half.

What we read this week (17 May)

Skepticism about Big Data, the hiccups that come with replacing employees with robots, “social lasers of cruelty,” Google’s new cutting-edge toy and the bizarre story of a con man and government collaborator.

Quote of the week

Society will develop a new kind of servitude which covers the surface of society with a network of complicated rules, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Articles of the week

  • Foreign Policy: Think Again: Big Data
    Kate Crawford, prinicipal researcher at Microsoft, makes the case for curbing our enthusiasm when it comes to Big Data and instead employing more caution and forethought. Most of the concerns she highlights here stem from the fact that data out of context can be misconstrued, and can therefore be a liability.
  • Caixin Online: Why Foxconn’s Switch to Robots Hasn’t Been Automatic
    Johannes’ recent talk at re:publica discussed what happens when machines replace us at work. Foxconn is an interesting example of a company in the midst of just such a transition, and demonstrates many of the social and logistic difficulties that come with the territory.
  • Smithsonian Magazine: What Turned Jaron Lanier Against the Web?
    Jaron Lanier is another voice advocating caution to the techno-utopians – a group he used to belong to. He’s especially critical of the notion of the “wisdom of the crowd”: “This is the thing that continues to scare me. You see in history the capacity of people to congeal—like social lasers of cruelty. That capacity is constant.”
  • New York Times Bits Blog: Google Buys a Quantum Computer
    The D-Wave quantum computer that was in the news a while back has been bought by Google and NASA, who are collaborating to work on AI and machine learning. Take note of the other companies and organizations mentioned in this article – it’s an interesting crew.
  • Wired Threat Level: Drugstore Cowboy
    A long read and a crazy story about a con man who cooperated with the US government to nab Google for supporting illegal drug sales through AdWords.

What we read this week (10 May)

Bill Gates in an entertaining interview with Wired, insights from a news aggregator, how teenagers are more correct in their use of “social,” the gaps in language and literature when it comes to digital life, and reflections on augmenting reality.

Quote of the week

We’re reaching a cliff of AI, where the height of human knowledge falls off into a wasteland of poorly automated social grace.

Mark Wilson

Articles of the week

What we read this week (May 3)

How robots are eating our jobs, Mailbox’s Gentry Underwood on his app and design thinking, why it’s weird when technology turns your body into an interface, how Facebook designs the “perfect empty vessel” into which you pour your content, and how the internet is both destroying and creating middlemen.

Quote of the week

Broad dissemination and individual choice turn most technologies into a plus. If only the elites have access, it’s a dystopia.

Ramez Naam

Articles of the week

Week 134

A look at how lessons from parent-teacher relationships at schools could be applied to community management and customer service.

Parent-teacher relationships and community management

Last week I met with a teacher at a primary school in our neighborhood in Mitte, both to get some input for our project on technology and autodidactic learning and to get some hints for my career pursuits. We discussed the nature of the school community and how to bring technology into the classroom – to the benefit of both the teacher and the students.

In terms of community management, parents of schoolchildren are a really interesting community to look at. The school is providing a service to the children as well as to their parents, who of course are deeply invested in seeing their children do well. My teacher acquaintance told me she has had plenty of colleagues who are afraid of parents, and who try to avoid them and their concerned questioning whenever possible. She has some interesting strategies for developing a good relationship with the parents and avoiding conflict, and these can be applied in many more areas of work than education. (If in search of business advice, for “parents,” read “customers.”)

Her philosophy when it comes to working with parents is complete transparency. She spends the first few months of the schoolyear concentrating on communicating with parents, as well as getting to know the kids. She makes sure parents know both how to contact her and that they are welcome to do so, and she takes time to answer their questions promptly and in detail. She mentioned that she uses Pinterest to collect her ideas about primary teaching and more specifically teaching math, both so that she can have a collection to refer back to and so she can quickly share links with parents about her teaching philosophy and methods. If they have any concerns or specific questions about her methods, she invites them into her classroom to watch class as it’s happening and see for themselves what it’s like. She said it’s especially from this gesture that she gets a lot of respect, since parents can then see how much patience and skill it takes to manage a 20-strong classroom of young children, and since they can understand more clearly why she goes about things the way she does.

This creates an atmosphere of trust and open discussion – she has nothing to hide from them, and there is no reason for parents to get upset if they know they can voice their concerns without hesitation. She is also able to feel more confident in her work, knowing that she and the parents are on the same page. They are also on same side – clearly working towards a common goal. This way she can make allies out of potential critics and opponents.

Transferring these ideas to business: this teacher, if she were a business, would be exemplary. In order to make her own work more effective, she gets her customers on her side, letting them in on the process and establishing trust.

What we read this week (26 Apr)

How the internet is trying to make a living, the bizarre notion that life on Earth might predate Earth itself, “demetricating” Facebook, drawing conclusions about the trajectory of human life from Facebook data, and what happens when Google knows more about what your company’s up to than you do.

Quote of the week

In the startup world, you work very hard to make other people rich. Other people.

Bruce Sterling

Articles of the week

What we read this week (19 Apr)

How social media use changes the concepts of authenticity and the self, how the UK’s Government Digital Service operates, the future of textiles and an unglamorous sea creature, Tumblr-inspired fashion, and a disturbing image of future cities compiled from tech company literature.

Quote of the week

So what is real about ourselves depends not some internal ability to think or feel something but the ability to externalize it as processable data. We surrender the prerogative of claiming to be self-created and learn to love the self the data tells us we are.

Rob Horning

Articles of the week

What we read this week (12 Apr)

On neurofiction, the evolution of mobile computing, therapy for internet multitaskers, a writing tool designed for web-bound text and the growing trend for disappearing messages.

Quote of the week

I was alive when people thought it was just amazing to have a fax machine. Now I’m alive and people think it’s amazing to still have a fax machine.

Bruce Sterling

Articles of the week

Week 131

Reflections on writing while disconnected.

Tethering, dodgy internet and (foreign-language) writing

Now that the long Berlin winter finally looks like it might be ending, I’m enjoying my sunny desk in Mitte. We’ve now got working internet here, but last week, Igor and Johannes were using their phones to provide internet for the office. I was connecting via Johannes’ phone, which meant that whenever he had to leave, I had no access to the internet anymore. This had the surprisingly helpful side effect of forcing me to do any work I could do without the internet in these blocks of time.

Having the internet off helped me to write with focus. I was working on a newsletter in German, and found that when I didn’t have constant access to LEO to help me find the right words for my thoughts, I was much more active and creative in cobbling together my sentences. Generally when I’m writing in German, I use a shortcut where I type “le [word]” into Alfred and it looks up the word on LEO. This is something I use fairly extensively, and I find now that I do it when I encounter even the slightest bit of mental resistance when looking for a word or phrase. When deprived of this auxiliary mind, I realized how much of the information I search for is already in my head, that I could use all the time, if only I looked for it. I found that writing the bulk of my piece first, leaving blanks for words I had to look up later, was much quicker than my usual internet-as-crutch method, and should also improve my active vocabulary.

Having no access to the usual distractors (mainly Twitter and its bounty of interesting links, really) also helped get texts written much more quickly than usual. Though I usually try to open interesting links only to save them to read them later, even the preliminary reading needed to decide whether to save a piece or not is disruptive (in the negative sense!). I try to remind myself that multitasking is horribly inefficient, but just how inefficient it is can only be made clear when the option is taken away from you. It made me realize how easy it is to interrupt a decent train of thought in favor of satisfying some momentary curiosity.