Wednesday Quickies: The Robots are Coming

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, so there’s some catch-up to do.

Let’s start with the unambiguously exciting news: Comet Siding Spring flew past Mars about a week ago. It just so happens that there are a whole bunch of robots on Mars, so we were able to get pictures of the comet’s passage. This is amazing news because Siding Spring is an Oort Cloud comet, which normally hangs out on the edge of space and only very rarely falls back close to the Sun. Here’s a photo:

Comet Siding Spring, passing Mars. From

Back on Earth, Wired has just posted an article about this thing. Wired bills it as a “flying car”, but since that’s commonly understood to be a VTOL kind of thing that is constantly aloft, like what The Jetsons drive, I’d be more inclined to call it a “driving plane”. Either way, though, I hate it. There are very good reasons why we don’t have flying cars today and why we probably never will. Planes are far more dangerous and more difficult to operate than cars, and a slight fender-bender on the ground could make a driving plane a deathtrap in the air.

But even if flying cars were proved viable, they would still be a social and environmental nightmare. If people start using personal planes in lieu of cars, the carbon emissions will be massive. And the thing in the Wired article is expected to eventually cost somewhere between a supercar and a small plane. That means that it will be the rich flying these things, possibly just using them as a way of bypassing all the congestion and problems of the surface road network. Since the rich have the most power to have funds allocated to their preferred infrastructure, that will be bad news for anybody without a personal plane. Aviation is currently the last form of transportation that is normally done relatively efficiently, with large airliners carrying many people. That’s a good thing, because aviation is also the most environmentally destructive form of transportation. We should be wary of allowing the creeping individualisation which has affected land transportation in the last century to extend into the skies.

As usual, automation is increasingly in the news. Ford is proposing to add auto-braking to its new cars as early as next year. Once people get comfortable with that, full automation will seem a lot more acceptable. Auto-breaking is great news for me as a cyclist that doesn’t want to get run over, but if you’re a trucker you might be pretty worried about the next story: Mercedes is working on a next-generation truck which will have fully automated highway driving. For the moment a human driver is still needed for cities, but it’s only a matter of time before the robots figure that one out, too. Google’s car can already do it, after all. No wonder Elon Musk is worried about the robots taking over.

If that’s depressing, then you can look at this new OK Go video, which makes ingenious use of at least two kinds of automoation: camera drones and weird…Japanese…robotic…trike…things. It’s delightful.

Why we need Ello

“I tried to quit Facebook. I really don’t like it. But when I stopped using it, I just lost touch with all my friends and didn’t get invited to anything, so I had to start using again.”

Have you ever heard a friend say something like that? I certainly have. Every now and then, somebody I know succeeds in quitting Facebook, but most who try wind up posting on their wall again within a month, often with an excuse like the one above.

Ello’s interface is attractive, but their business model is even more so.

It’s not really a surprise that people are always trying to leave Facebook. It’s a business we love to hate. Its practices are incredibly creepy, it gets perused by snoopy employers, and it leads to unproductive and annoying political arguments with distant acquaintances. But it’s also no surprise that we always come back. Facebook has long since gone beyond being a bit of online fun, and is now an essential network of social infrastructure. It is the dominant way that people organise parties, talk to their distant friends, and get in touch with people that have similar interests. We can no more swear off Facebook than swear off roads.

We are stuck with Facebook for many of the same reasons we are stuck with the inefficient QWERTY keyboard. Firstly: We are accustomed to Facebook. Just as we don’t want to have to learn to use a new keyboard layout (despite the obvious deficiencies of QWERTY), we don’t want to have to figure out a new interface for social networking. And, also like QWERTY, Facebook is conventional. If one person switches away from the QWERTY keyboard while everybody else sticks with it, then that person will have a lot of trouble using keyboards that are not their own. Similarly, even if we are willing to learn how to use a new social networking website, it’s useless to us if our friends aren’t on it. And so we stay with Facebook.

The problem, though, is that Facebook, unlike QWERTY, is proprietary. The QWERTY keyboard can be made by anybody. We are hopelessly dependent on it, but it’s not such a huge problem because a QWERTY keyboard can be had for a couple bucks and a trip to the local electronics store. Facebook, however, is, by definition, the only company that can provide facebook. And so it gets to exact a price from us in exchange for using it: As facebook users, our data is analysed, commodified, and sold to third parties, some of which are the government.

Ultimately, Facebook has both economic and political power to shape the way we engage with our friends, families, adn the world. Placing such an important function into the hands of an inherently monopolistic corporation is concerning. But what is the alternative? Can we nationalise Facebook? Can we somehow make one social network that is built by many different companies? It seems unlikely.

That is why I was cautiously excited to learn about Ello, the latest anti-Facebook to hit the headlines. And I was more excited a few days ago to see that they have signed a legal agreement making them a public benefit corporation, which will legally compel them and anybody who buys them out to forego any revenue from advertising or selling users’ data to third parties. That sounds great, of course, but there are a lot of unanswered questions. Will Ello be able to sustain itself financially without that source of revenue? They’re planning to accept voluntary payments in exchange for added features, but the jury is out on the feasibility of this. And even if they can do that, there’s still the fact that the graveyards of the internet are littered with failed social networking startups. Remember google plus?

Even if those concerns are unfounded, there are some further questions about whether we can trust Ello in the long term. They may never advertise and they may never sell our data, but if there is a mass exodus from Facebook to Ello, then Ello will have every bit as much of a stranglehold on our personal lives as Facebook ever did. Maybe they will be more benevolent than Facebook, but there are a lot of stories that start with assurances that “maybe they will be more benevolent”, but do not end very well.

So Ello has its work cut out for it, both on financial and ethical fronts. But I’m still rooting for them. Not only because I want to see Facebook’s power diminished (although that is definitely part of it), but also because if they succeed, they will set a very exciting precedent. There are three predominant ways of meeting any public need, as far as I am concerned. The first is a private business, whose problems are manifold and obvious. The second is public provision through the government, which is a nice idea, but often inefficient and unaccountable. The third has only recently become important on the internet: Direct relationships between producers and consumers based on good faith. That sounds vague and fuzzy, but it works for at least a few internet businesses. Major podcasts, such as Citizen Radio and Common Sense are all funded through entirely voluntary donations, depending on a close, mutually beneficial relationship between the podcasters and their audience. If a social network could work on that principle, as Ello proposes to do, then we would all benefit.

Up until now, we haven’t seen this business model scaled up in any major way. But if they succeed, ello might just fit the bill. A major social network founded on service to its users rather than profits for its shareholders would be very exciting. And so I’m going to root for ello. Maybe you’ll even see a page for this blog there someday soon.

A Sociotechnical Analysis of Drunk Driving.

There are only three countries that I’ve spent any appreciable amount of time in: Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. I often have a lot of fun comparing the three to one another; despite their shared language and philosophical heritage, there are some interesting things that can be learned from their subtle differences. Case in point: Drunk driving.

Now, virtually everybody I’ve ever met, in all three countries, is opposed to drunk driving. It is a credit to our time that virtually nobody I have met in Canada, the US, or the UK thinks that drunk driving is a good thing to do. Most people, myself included, condemn it in very harsh terms. But while everybody tends to think it’s a bad idea to drive drunk, the lengths to which people will go to avoid it are different between Canada, the US, and the UK.

The British people I have interacted with are by far the most dedicated to avoiding any chance of driving drunk. When I go to a pub with my British friends, those who have driven cars will typically forego alcohol altogether. No drinks with food. No half-pints. They make do with coffee and soft drinks. And anybody who has had more than a half pint before getting into a car will likely lose some face.

In Canada, people are slightly more lenient. Nobody will drive if they are drunk, but there is a perception that, even when driving is concerned, there is a difference between having drunk, and being drunk. It is commonly accepted that people will drive to a restaurant or a bar, have a drink or two (often with food), and then drive home. I’ve been a passenger through a few drunk driving checkpoints in Canada, and the driver’s reassurance that they’ve only had one or two drinks over the course of the evening is usually enough to get the officer to wish them a good night and wave them on. But if somebody is showing even mild signs of intoxication, then their friends will normally insist they find another way home, and will often offer to provide either taxi fare or a crash pad.

Americans are the most lenient. The Americans I know still think that drunk driving is a very bad idea, but they will nevertheless drive to the bar with the express intention of drinking moderately. That doesn’t mean that people get wasted and drive home; all the times I’ve gone to an American bar, the drivers have taken pains to moderate how much they drink. But it seems to be generally socially accepted that you might drive home mildly buzzed from time to time. Any signs of serious intoxication, however, will be looked at the same way that they are seen in Canada or the UK.

Now, this is only my personal experience. I belong to a very particular class, and I have primarily lived in cities, so this is far from a representative sample. I am probably making at least a few massive over generalisations. But at least a few formal studies seem to support my observations: Drunk driving deaths per 10,000 population about 0.1 in the UK in 2011;  about 0.23 in Canada that same year; and about 0.32 in the United States in 2012. Does this imply that Americans are reckless drinkers and dangerous drivers, while Britons are generally safer and Canadians are somewhere in between? I don’t think so. Ascribing these kinds of things to the moral differences between countries is usually just a way to reinforce your own biases. It’s much more productive to look at systemic factors that might influence peoples’ decisions about drinking and driving.

And as soon as I think about it, an obvious systemic factor emerges that could be partially responsible for these different attitudes. In my experience, attitudes towards drunk driving seem to correlate very strongly with transportation infrastructure, and urban planning more generally. The British cities where I have lived and visited have multiple public transit options, and the pub is often in walking distance of your house. In Canada, the bar is usually in a considerably longer, but still manageable walking distance, and there is probably a slightly dysfunctional bus service that will get you there if you don’t want to walk. In the United States, bars and restaurants are often stranded in isolated parking lots, making driving essentially the only way to reach them.

I don’t think this is a coincidence. The connection between these two variables is, after all, quite obvious. People who have ways to get to and from the bar without driving will make use of them. People without such options will go to the bar anyway, normally using their car. Whatever doctors and safety campaigners might say about it, drinking seems to be a very durable social practice-it goes back to pre-history, after all. And it tends to provide an important context for socializing. We could try to change this, and suggest that people go to coffee shops on Friday afternoons if there isn’t a pub within walking distance, but w probably wouldn’t have much success. If prohibition and the threat of prosecution couldn’t stop people from drinking in the 1920s, then nothing we’re willing to do in the twenty-first century is likely to do so, either. One way or another, people are going to go to the pub, and if they have to, they’ll drive there.

None of this excuses drunk drivers in the slightest. Most twentieth-century states prosecute them harshly, and are right to do so. But those who really want to tackle the problem would do well to also consider its socio-technical root causes. I think that some anti-drunk driving campaigners might have things backwards. There are two elements necessary for drunk driving: A drink, and a motor vehicle. Maybe rather than trying to get drivers to not drink, campaigners should focus instead on removing the pressure for drinkers to drive. That means systemic change. It means better public transit infrastructures; it means pubs in residential areas; and it means more walkable cities. That’s harder than telling people not to drive drunk, but it might just save more lives.

Wednesday Quickies: Labour in the tech sector, and the perils of living off-grid

It turns out that if you want to live off-grid in some parts of the United States, the various technological obstacles are the least of your worries. The state of Florida has recently made it illegal to have a house that is not connected to the electrical and water grids. This is somewhat surprising from the United States, where one might think that the nation’s pioneer mythology would stand in the way of this kind of interference, at least at a political level.

All your Amazon stuff comes from this massive warehouse, where it turns out the workers aren’t actually treated that well.


But perhaps that’s naive. It turns out that The State in the USA has a bit of a history of going after modern-day pioneers. Last year, a commune in Texas was raided by federal agents. After several weeks of legal harassment, its residents woke up one day to find men in tactical gear storming the property. They were all shortly handcuffed while the premises was searched, and one of them was carted off to jail for an unpaid traffic ticket. These kinds of radical experimental communities have always been vulnerable; their position outside cultural norms and the dominant socio-technical regime make them an easy target for any state actors who decide they don’t like them. Stuff like this just goes to illustrate that the socio-technical regime can sometimes be embodied in very draconian ways.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Facebook’s bus drivers are trying to unionise. Facebook, like many tech giants in the Bay Area, employs luxurious shuttle buses to carry its employees to and from its corporate campus. But apparently they don’t treat their drivers very well-one man interviewed for the story says that he works absurd hours for less than a living wage. Similarly, Amazon has recently come under fire for forcing its warehouse staff to stand in a metal detector queue at the end of the day-after they have clocked out-to make sure that they are not stealing any goods from the warehouse. I can understand the concern about theft, but employees being kept from going home should be paid. If you’re more interested in the labour issues connected to e-commerce, check out this Mother Jones expose on the subject.

It can sometimes be tempting to see tech companies as existing purely in the digital sphere, as if Facebook and Amazon are composed of nothing but circuitry and a couple hundred pampered programmers. But even digital businesses-especially ones like Amazon-need physical infrastructure, and that means they will be employing low-level workers. We shouldn’t allow our perceptions of these companies to stop us from holding them accountable for their treatment of the people that drive their buses and run their warehouses. Unions might seem old-fashioned compared to the cutting edge stuff that goes on at these companies, but cases like these make it clear that they are as badly needed in the twentieth century as they were in the nineteenth.

What GamerGate tells us about Transitions

If you’re not a gamer, and you don’t spend any time paying attention to the internet controversy du jour, then you might not have heard of the GamerGate movement. Even for those who do know about it, it can be very difficult to keep track of. So, in the interests of not confusing too many people who read this post, here is a brief run-down:

If you ask GamerGate what they’re all about, they’ll tell you that the gaming community is annoyed about the state of video game journalism. Beyond this one point of relative consensus, however, the whole movement is a bit of a hodgepodge. It includes some criticism of gaming publications that at least looks like it could be legitimate, but the hashtag is also used in connection with some more frightening things, such as harassment campaigns directed against Zoe Quinn, who is erroneously accused of opportunistically sleeping with gaming journalists to promote her games, and Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist critic of games whose largely positive media coverage has annoyed gamers who see her as a fraud.

Many GamerGaters will deny that these two cases are relevant to their cause, and I’m not going to insist that they’re wrong on that point. Nor am I going to take a position here on the state of ethics within video game journalism. But I am interested in one trope which seems to run fairly consistently throughout the entire GamerGate movement. Regardless of whether they condone Quinn and Sarkeesian bashing, people using the GamerGate hashtag routinely make use of terms like ‘white knight’, or ‘social justice warrior’, which are commonly used to demean people on the internet who take an interest in-you guessed it-social justice. Many of those involved with GamerGate complain that they do not want a feminist agenda pushed on them through people like Sarkeesian and other more culturally critical game journalists.

There’s an obvious fallacy here, of course. The notion that a feminist agenda is being somehow forced on the games industry and the gaming community presumes that the gaming community does not already have its share of women, and indeed of feminists. Journalists and cultural critics are questioning the portrayal of women and other marginalized groups in video games, because those groups are already playing the games. And it’s not particularly surprising that women might not want to play a game like Dragon’s Crown, which depicts women in such a ridiculously oversexualized manner. “Well then they don’t have to play that game!”, one can almost hear the gamers say. Yes, but that’s exactly the purpose of reviews pointing out sexism: To tell women that if they don’t like sexism in video games, then maybe they should give Dragon’s Crown a pass. And maybe also to put some pressure on the industry to consider whether their games alienate a big part of the gaming public. It was, in fact, a change to the art designed to make the game less sexist that ignited a furore around

Three characters from Dragon’s Crown. The art in this game has been accused of being sexist. I can’t imagine why!

So at its core, there appears to be a big part of GamerGate that is essentially a kind of anxiety about the expansion of the gaming community beyond its original demographic of hard-core gamers (who were mostly youg, middle-class, white, and male).

I wonder, however, what this means for technology more generally. Because when you look at other cases when a niche technology expands into a larger market, similar anxieties seem to crop up. And they often seem to manifest themselves as discrimination. Take my research in transportation as an example: Cars were originally an overwhelmingly upper-class technology. When motorcycles gave the working class access to the internal combustion engine, the original core of early drivers had to share the road with people of different social standing than themselves, and the anxiety this caused led to a lot of demonization of motorcycles as dangerous machines operated by reckless drivers. When women started driving, a mythology about how women are bad drivers quickly emerged, and has persisted to this day, despite the empirically proven fact that women are in fact far safer drivers than men.

This change to the cover art of Divinity: Original Sin was made after complaints that the female character was sexualized while the male character wasn’t. Her new, more practical armour is taken by some as evidence of too much influence by “Social Justice Warriors” in the video game industry.

The phrase “There are no girls on the internet” is another obvious manifestation of this phenomenon. It is well-documented that when women have the audacity to say something on the internet, they often get trolled, and sometimes get brutally harassed. That’s because cyberspace was originally  dominated by white, male, geeks. Now that it’s being democratized, some of these geeks are becoming annoyed at losing their control over something had belonged to them, and so they are lashing out.

There is a certain logic to this. If you’re developing a new and as yet unperfected technology, such as the car circa 1900, or video games circa 2000, then you’re going to want a close-knit and devoted community of supporters. These people will comprise your early market. They will be forgiving as you work out the kinks, and they will take an active role in developing the technology as well-bootstrapping their own additions to it. They will also build up a culture and a set of social practices around the new technology, such as the system of etiquette which stood in for traffic law in the early days of the car. Crucially, because your innovation at this stage is likely both expensive and inefficient, these people are probably going to be those with a surplus both of money and of time: In other words, they’re fairly likely to be middle-class and white, and there’s a good chance that they will be men. Also crucially, this early community will probably begin to identify with the thing they are supporting, and begin to exert a sense of ownership over it.

The problem is that as your new technology gets more popular, it will become attractive to different social groups than even you might have intended it for. Women, for example. What this means is that the community of users will expand, and the social conventions around the new technology will have to expand with it. New users might demand modifications to the culture, or to the technology itself, so that they feel more comfortable with it. Your earliest users might interpret this as a loss of control over something that they built from the very beginning. That tends to make people angry. And so you will start to see stories emerging about who qualifies as a more authentic user, or become nasty towards those they perceive as outsiders, or, in the case of gaming, “filthy casuals”.

This post isn’t really about gamergate. Their complaints are very diverse, and I don’t have the time or energy to understand all of them. But at least one of their complaints is rooted in the fact that games are suddenly being evaluated from perspectives other than the ones they’re used to. This is, I think, an interesting intersection between transitions and social justice politics. It may partly explain why technology is overwhelmingly understood as a white male domain: Because white men are most able to shape new technologies from the beginning. It also explains why women often face hostility when entering pre-established technological communities, such as those built around gaming or driving. So if you yourself are involved as an early adopter of a new and radical technology, you should keep in mind that you and your friends might lose control of it one day. And that’s okay. It means that you have ultimately succeeded.

Wednesday Quickies: Drone Edition

For some reason, drones keep popping up in my news feed this week. Apart from the DHL delivery drone I posted about on Monday, I’ve found a few interesting (and occasionally perplexing) stories about camera-wielding drones. A few examples:

Perhaps the most important drones in the world right now are the ones that are currently filming the protests in Hong Kong. The protests are absolutely massive-bigger than any I have ever seen on the news, at any rate. But anybody who has ever been to a protest march with a camera phone knows that it can be really tricky to snap a photo that accurately portrays the size of the crowd. Most of the best ones tend to come from bystanders on top of tall buildings. In Hong Kong, however, small camera drones are apparently allowing journalists to deal with that limitation, and capture stunning photos like this one:

hong kong protests

This photo was taken by a drone. From Mashable.

This is kind of exciting from an activist perspective. It makes it that much easier to document both protests, and the police brutality that often follows them. The police can arrest journalists, but even if they ban drones in protest areas, they’ll probably have a hard time bringing them down, especially as they get smaller and fly higher. That’s probably the rationale behind the flone, which has been developed specifically as an activist technology.

It turns out, however, that camera drones are already illegal in the United States! So illegal, in fact, that even big-name Hollywood producers have traditionally had to go abroad to use them. The FAA recently granted an exemption to the rule against commercial drones for film makers, but it still comes with some pretty restrictive stipulations. They can’t fly very far, and it looks like there will be a lot of red tape in the permitting process. What this shows is that the FAA regulations that opponents of delivery drones pointed to so triumphantly are actually extremely restrictive by international standards. Of course, it’s an open question whether that means that the FAA will be more open to change if commercial drones become popular elsewhere, or does it mean that they’ll be even more reluctant to do so.

And lastly, there’s this thing. I’ll admit that I find it a bit neat, and the people who made it certainly deserve some credit for originality. But what exactly is it for? Maybe it will have a small niche market in extreme sports types, but beyond that I can’t imagine who might need it. Anybody who wears that thing around while not climbing a mountain will probably suffer from the Glasshole Effect pretty quickly. But it does demonstrate that drone technology is getting cheaper, smaller, and more manageable at a pretty fast rate. Maybe they’ll find all kinds of little niche applications like this. Personally, I’d like one that I can remotely fly around my house whenever I go out and get paranoid that I’ve left the stove on.