Posts Tagged ‘technology’

There was an extraordinary moment in the evolution of human consciousness and the sociology of cinema etiquette last week. Perhaps it was the first time it had ever taken place – and I was there as a witness! Like being there in 1903 when the Wright brothers flew their way into history; or sitting in the space capsule as Neil Armstrong stepped down onto the surface of the moon.


So I’m sitting in the Cineworld Fulham Road last week as the trailers take place before the new Start Trek film (disappointing: 6/10). The guy next to me takes out his mobile phone, checks for messages, leaves it on, and then – this is the Close Encounters of the Third Kind moment – he places it in the moulded plastic fizzy drinks holder attached to the front of the arm rest between us. No self-consciousness; no shame. The bottom of the phone comes forward, towards him; the back leans against the upper edge of the drinks holder; so the phone is at a perfect 37 degree tilt from the vertical for him to see. And he’s watching the film as he is glancing up and down at his incoming messages – like a driver with the TomTom in the edge of vision.

I was too awestruck at the audacity of this technological leap to be shocked. It’s the kind of unforseen improvisation that delights and appalls me at the same time. I bet you big money that within two years there will be dedicated and beautifully designed mobile phone holders on the arm of every cinema seat, but this time just above the fizzy drinks holder. What would my friend have done if he had had a 6 litre carton of coke as well? [Just for the record: This is my idea, and I hold the patent...]

Is this the end of civilisation or the beginning? Is this common in London or New York or Shanghai and I’ve just never witnessed if before?

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They really are tracking you. It’s not just the information that you knowingly put on the internet. It’s also the information that your friends knowingly put there; and all the other embedded information that neither you nor your friends realise is being shared. See this video (sorry about the advert…)

The simplest example, which I had no idea about, is the global positioning info that is automatically uploaded from a digital camera with some photographs. So if you are tagged by someone else on a photo, your time (to the second) at a particular location (to within three metres) is there for everyone to see. Then it just needs the analytics to bring all this data together, and work out what it says about known past behaviour and probable future behaviour. Put this together with your Tesco Club-Card and Amazon buying history and the Google analytics on your recent searches, and they know more about you than you know about yourself.

I’m not exaggerating. When did you ever really reflect on what your movements and searches and purchases say about yourself? Do you even remember what you bought or searched for last month or last year? Well Tesco and Amazon and Google and now apparently Raytheon certainly do.

Ryan Gallagher explains:

A multinational security firm has secretly developed software capable of tracking people’s movements and predicting future behaviour by mining data from social networking websites.

A video obtained by the Guardian reveals how an “extreme-scale analytics” system created by Raytheon, the world’s fifth largest defence contractor, can gather vast amounts of information about people from websites including Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare…

Using Riot it is possible to gain an entire snapshot of a person’s life – their friends, the places they visit charted on a map – in little more than a few clicks of a button.

In the video obtained by the Guardian, it is explained by Raytheon’s “principal investigator” Brian Urch that photographs users post on social networks sometimes contain latitude and longitude details – automatically embedded by smartphones within “exif header data.”

Riot pulls out this information, showing not only the photographs posted onto social networks by individuals, but also the location at which the photographs were taken…

Riot can display on a spider diagram the associations and relationships between individuals online by looking at who they have communicated with over Twitter. It can also mine data from Facebook and sift GPS location information from Foursquare, a mobile phone app used by more than 25 million people to alert friends of their whereabouts. The Foursquare data can be used to display, in graph form, the top 10 places visited by tracked individuals and the times at which they visited them.

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This is a couple of weeks old now, but it didn’t get as much traction in the news as I expected. Isn’t it an absolutely astonishing historical landmark, that over one billion people are now voluntarily connected on a social networking site?

Yes, there are more people in China, in India and in the Catholic Church; but these ‘groupings’ (I can’t find a good generic term that covers a nation-state and the Catholic Church) have taken a few years to get going, and a large number of their members were born into them.

Facebook doubled it’s size from a half billion users to one billion in just three years and two months!

See this report by Jemima Kiss.

And watch this very clever promotional video, entitled “The Things that Connect Us”, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose film credits include Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Notice the beautiful bridge images, very close to my blogging heart.

And remember Susan Maushart’s warning in her book The Winter of Our Disconnect (p6):

So… how connected, I found myself wondering, is connected enough? Like many other parents, I’d noticed that the more we seemed to communicate as individuals, the less we seemed to cohere as a family… I started considering a scenario E. M. Forster never anticipated: the possibility that the more we connect, the further we may drift, the more fragmented we may become.

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I’ve had great fun experimenting with “Logos 4″, the latest edition of the Logos Bible Software. It does everything you’d expect, and much more.

Just take my last search as an example. I wanted to look up Hebrews Chapter 12, so I just typed “Heb 12″ into the search box on the home page. Immediately, as a default setting, it opens up a set of windows displaying a vast array of tools and information to help you make sense of the scriptural passage: the English text in five different translations (there are many more to choose from), the Greek text together with all its variants (with an option of transliteration if your Greek is getting rusty), links from every Greek and English word to a set of dictionaries and concordances, numerous cross-references, biblical commentaries on the passage, handouts to photocopy for bible study groups, illustrations, and even a Wordle-style word-cloud to highlight which themes are coming up most consistently in these chosen lines. This is all before you have customised the page or used the drop down menus to link the scripture with your own preferred theological resources.

The danger, of course, is that you spend all your time racing down every exegetical rabbit hole you discover instead of reflecting on the Word of God itself, just as you can get lost in the footnotes and cross-referencing system of any printed bible. But this is a risk with any tool: that we become fascinated by what it is in itself rather than what purpose it is built to serve.

Here is the demo:

There is a profusion of bible software available today – some of it online, some of it downloadable. I can’t give an honest comparison of Logos with all the other packages, simply because I haven’t used many of them. My ordinary practice of bible study and sermon preparation still involves sitting down with pen and paper, an interlinear bible, and a pile of printed dictionaries and commentaries. It’s very old-school and pre-internet. But from my limited time spent with Logos I can say that it is attractively designed, easy to use, and delivers a huge amount in terms of everyday bible study and exegesis.

The other plus is that there is now a set of Catholic texts to supplement the largely Protestant cross-referencing system that Logos was designed for. So you can call up Catholic bible commentaries and Catholic translations (e.g. the Catholic edition of the RSV) to link with the scriptural texts, and you can also explore these texts in their own right using the same software. So you have a library of Catholic theology and some very sophisticated tools to explore it with.

The best example here is the Catechism. Open this and you have the text itself. Click on a scripture reference in the footnotes, and it opens a set of windows at the side with all the biblical tools to study that passage in context. Click on another quotation in the footnote, and it gives you the whole passage (and usually the whole sermon or book) from which the quotation is taken. It links to patristic sources, magisterial documents, writings of the saints, etc. – all there in front of you without having to go to the bookshelf or search the net. Just as one example: I was reading paragraph 1371 of the Catechism about how one aspect of the Eucharistic sacrifice is that it is offered for the souls of the faithful departed, and it quotes St Monica’s request to her son St Augustine that he remember her at the Lord’s altar after her death. And with a single click you open up in the box below Book 9 Chapter 11 of Augustine’s confessions with the whole quotation in context.

I am sure there is a lot more here that I haven’t discovered, but this gives you a feel for what the software can do. The downside is the price. I’m lucky enough to be using a review copy, but the basic Catholic software package is $249.95 (see exactly what’s included here) – which must be about £150 at the moment. It’s a lot for an individual user. But if you think of what it costs to buy a decent set of biblical texts and commentaries over a number of years, then it sounds a lot less. You are buying a library rather than just a piece of software. (The other plus is that you can use it on your iPad or mobile. This doesn’t help me much because – despite my high-tech credentials – I am still getting used to texting…)

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I’ve just given a study day about the internet and new media, and it forced me to get my head around some of the jargon and the ideas. Here is my summary of what these terms mean and where the digital world is going.

Web 1.0: The first generation of internet technology. You call up pages of text and images with incredible speed and facility. It’s no different from strolling through a library, only much quicker. The operative verb is I LOOK. I look at pages on the screen just as I look at pages in a book. All content is provided for you – it’s a form of publishing. It may be updated in a way that is impossible when a solid book is sitting on your shelf, but you can’t change the content yourself.

Web 2.0: The second generation of internet technology allows for user-generated content. You don’t just look at the pages, you alter them. You write your own blog; you comment on someone else’s article in the comment boxes; you edit an entry on Wikipedia. And then, by extension, with basically the same technology, you share your thoughts on a social networking site, which means you are commenting not on a static site, but on something that is itself in flux. You have moved from action to interaction; from connection to interconnection. If Web 1.0 is like a digital library, Web 2.0 is like a digital ‘Letter to the Editor’, a digital conference call, a digital group discussion. The verb here is I PARTICIPATE.

Web 3.0: People disagree about the meaning of Web 3.0, about where the web is now going. I like John Smart‘s idea of an emerging Metaverse, where there is a convergence of the virtual and physical world. In the world of Web 2.0, of user-generated content and social networking, you stand in the physical/natural/real world and use the new media to help you around that world – the new media are tools. You talk to friends, you share ideas, you buy things that have been suggested and reviewed by others. But in Web 3.0 the new media become an essential part of the world in which you are living, they help to create the world, and you live within them.

The border between Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 is not tidy here, because Web 3.0 is partly about Web 2.0 becoming all-pervasive and continuous, so that your connection with the web and your social network is an essential part of every experience – it doesn’t get switched off. The mobile earpiece is always open to the chatter of others; the texts and status updates of your friends are projected into the corner of your Google Glasses (like those speedometers that are projected onto the car windscreen) so that they accompany what you are doing at every moment – the connection between real and virtual, between here and there, is seamless; the attention you give to every shop or product or street or person is digitally noted, through the head and eye movement sensors built into your glasses and the GPS in your phone, and simultaneously you are fed (into the corner of your glasses, or into your earpiece) layers of information about what is in front of you – reviews of the product, reminders of what you need to buy from the shop, warnings about the crime rate on this street, a note about the birthday and the names of the children of the person you are about to pass, etc. This is augmented reality or enhanced reality or layered reality.

It’s no different, in essence, from going for a stroll in the mid-70s with your first Walkman – creating for the first time your own soundtrack as you wander through the real world; or having the natural landscape around you altered by neon lights and billboards. But it is this experience a thousand times over, so that it is no longer possible to live in a non-virtual world, because every aspect of the real world is already augmented by some aspect of virtual reality. The verb here is I EXIST. I don’t just look at the virtual world, or use it to participate in real relationships; now I exist within this world.

Web 4.0: Some people say this is the Semantic Web (‘semantics’ is the science of meaning), when various programmes, machines, and the web itself becomes ‘intelligent’, and starts to create new meanings that were not programmed into it, and interact with us in ways that were not predicted or predictable beforehand. It doesn’t actually require some strict definition of ‘artificial intelligence’ or ‘consciousness’ for the computers; it just means that they start doing new things themselves – whatever the philosophers judge is or is not going on in their ‘minds’.

Another aspect of Web 4.0, or another definition, concerns plugging us directly into the web: when the boundary between us and the virtual world disappears. This is when the virtual world becomes physically/biologically part of us, or when we become physically/biologically part of the virtual world. When, in other words, the data is not communicated by phones or earpieces or glasses, but is implanted into us, so that the virtual data is part of our consciousness directly, and not just part of our visual or aural experience (the films Total Recall, eXistenZ, and the Matrix); and/or, when we control the real and virtual world by some kind of brain or neural interface, so that – in both cases – there really is a seamless integration of the real and the virtual, the personal/biological and the digital.

If this seems like science fiction, remember that it is already happening in smaller ways. See previous posts on Transhumanism, and the MindSpeller project at Leuven which can read the minds of stroke victims, and this MIT review of brain-computer interfaces. In this version of Web 4.0 the verb is not I exist (within a seamless real/virtual world), it is rather I AM this world and this world is me.

Watch this fascinating video of someone’s brainwaves controlling a robotic arm:

And this which has someone controlling first a signal on a screen, and then another robotic arm:

So this is someone making things happen in the real world just by thinking! (Which, come to think of it, is actually the miracle that takes place whenever we doing anything consciously!)

Any comments? Are you already living in Web 3.0 or 3.5? Do you like the idea of your children growing up in Web 4.0? What will Web 5.0 be?

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I was searching for information about the ‘population explosion’ and came across the Spiked campaign entitled “No to Neo-Malthusianism: Why We Oppose Population Control”. There is a string of articles exposing the prejudices and undermining the arguments of contemporary neo-Malthusians, many of them occasioned by the celebration at Spiked of the birth of Baby Seven Billion last year.

This article here by Brendan O’Neill is already three years old, but it’s a good summary of the alarmist arguments put forward by those who fear for the future of the planet and the future of humanity because of the population growth. And then, as you expect from O’Neill, a trenchant critique of their position.

First of all the facts (as they were in November 2009):

In the year 200 AD, there were approximately 180 million human beings on the planet Earth. And at that time a Christian philosopher called Tertullian argued: ‘We are burdensome to the world, the resources are scarcely adequate for us… already nature does not sustain us.’ In other words, there were too many people for the planet to cope with and we were bleeding Mother Nature dry.

Well today, nearly 180 million people live in the Eastern Half of the United States alone, in the 26 states that lie to the east of the Mississippi River. And far from facing hunger or destitution, many of these people – especially the 1.7million who live on the tiny island of Manhattan – have quite nice lives.

In the early 1800s, there were approximately 980 million human beings on the planet Earth. One of them was the population scaremonger Thomas Malthus, who argued that if too many more people were born then ‘premature death would visit mankind’ – there would be food shortages, ‘epidemics, pestilence and plagues’, which would ‘sweep off tens of thousands [of people]’.

Well today, more than the entire world population of Malthus’s era now lives in China alone: there are 1.3billion human beings in China. And far from facing pestilence, plagues and starvation, the living standards of many Chinese have improved immensely over the past few decades. In 1949 life expectancy in China was 36.5 years; today it is 73.4 years. In 1978 China had 193 cities; today it has 655 cities. Over the past 30 years, China has raised a further 235 million of its citizens out of absolute poverty – a remarkable historic leap forward for humanity.

Then the general critique:

What this potted history of population scaremongering ought to demonstrate is this: Malthusians are always wrong about everything.

The extent of their wrongness cannot be overstated. They have continually claimed that too many people will lead to increased hunger and destitution, yet the precise opposite has happened: world population has risen exponentially over the past 40 years and in the same period a great many people’s living standards and life expectancies have improved enormously. Even in the Third World there has been improvement – not nearly enough, of course, but improvement nonetheless. The lesson of history seems to be that more and more people are a good thing; more and more minds to think and hands to create have made new cities, more resources, more things, and seem to have given rise to healthier and wealthier societies.

Yet despite this evidence, the population scaremongers always draw exactly the opposite conclusion. Never has there been a political movement that has got things so spectacularly wrong time and time again yet which keeps on rearing its ugly head and saying: ‘This time it’s definitely going to happen! This time overpopulation is definitely going to cause social and political breakdown!’

There is a reason Malthusians are always wrong. It isn’t because they’re stupid… well, it might be a little bit because they’re stupid. But more fundamentally it is because, while they present their views as fact-based and scientific, in reality they are driven by a deeply held misanthropy that continually overlooks mankind’s ability to overcome problems and create new worlds.

Then the analysis:

The first mistake Malthusians always make is to underestimate how society can change to embrace more and more people. They make the schoolboy scientific error of imagining that population is the only variable, the only thing that grows and grows, while everything else – including society, progress and discovery – stays roughly the same. That is why Malthus was wrong: he thought an overpopulated planet would run out of food because he could not foresee how the industrial revolution would massively transform society and have an historic impact on how we produce and transport food and many other things. Population is not the only variable – mankind’s vision, growth, his ability to rethink and tackle problems: they are variables, too.

The second mistake Malthusians always make is to imagine that resources are fixed, finite things that will inevitably run out. They don’t recognise that what we consider to be a resource changes over time, depending on how advanced society is. That is why the Christian Tertullian was wrong in 200 AD when he said ‘the resources are scarcely adequate for us’. Because back then pretty much the only resources were animals, plants and various metals. Tertullian could not imagine that, in the future, the oceans, oil and uranium would become resources, too. The nature of resources changes as society changes – what we consider to be a resource today might not be one in the future, because other, better, more easily-exploited resources will hopefully be discovered or created. Today’s cult of the finite, the discussion of the planet as a larder of scarce resources that human beings are using up, really speaks to finite thinking, to a lack of future-oriented imagination.

And the third and main mistake Malthusians always make is to underestimate the genius of mankind. Population scaremongering springs from a fundamentally warped view of human beings as simply consumers, simply the users of resources, simply the destroyers of things, as a kind of ‘plague’ on poor Mother Nature, when in fact human beings are first and foremost producers, the discoverers and creators of resources, the makers of things and the makers of history. Malthusians insultingly refer to newborn babies as ‘another mouth to feed’, when in the real world another human being is another mind that can think, another pair of hands that can work, and another person who has needs and desires that ought to be met.

So the population panic is rooted in bad sociology, bad science, and bad anthropology. And this is leaving aside the question of whether the world’s population will, in fact, keep increasing, or whether we are more likely to face a crisis of an imploding population over the next hundred years (e.g. see this article by David Brooks).

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As you know, I’m a ‘late adopter’ when it comes to new technology. I hear about things late; I wait around cautiously to see where something is going; I tell myself how happy I have been for so many years of adult life without this dazzling piece of equipment; I hang on until the price drops a bit further; then – sometimes – I take the plunge. So it was with the Kindle, which I bought about six months ago.

What’s remarkable is how quickly it has become a normal, boring and almost indispensable part of daily life. In many ways it’s incredibly retro, even more so after the Google Nexus 7 comes out – dropping the price and raising the stakes for a decent 7 inch tablet. And I betray my own retro-ness in remembering the tipping point that got me pressing the BUY button: it was when I became convinced that the electronic ink pages really were as easy to read as a paper book.

Why do I like it? More to the point, why is it so normal that I have already forgotten it was ever a buying issue? Three main reasons.

(1) Legibility: I was worried it would strain the eyes, and it doesn’t. I can sit in bed and read the Kindle for 2 hours not noticing that I am reading an electronic screen rather than a book (not that I read in bed that long very often…). In fact it is even easier because you can change the font size.

(2) Portability: It goes in the inside pocket of a light jacket, so instead of taking a shoulder bag or a man bag out with me for the sake of carrying a book, I just take the Kindle. So it’s easier than carrying just one book, let alone a whole library of books and journals.

(3) Versatility: I mean the range of stuff that I am reading, and that slips into my pocket so easily. I knew I would use the Divine Office (from Universalis), and the ubiquitous e-Books – a mixture of freebies and paid for. But I’m also downloading journals and websites. And one of the most helpful features is the way you can email documents to your Kindle that then appear as short texts. There are documents, talks, websites, sermons, etc, that I keep thinking I’ll read one day, but never want to read on the computer screen. So I email them to the Kindle, and read them on the bus or tube. I’m actually catching up on piles of interesting reading without having to make an effort.

I’m sorry this sounds like an advert. I’m just delighted when something does what it says, and does what you want it to do, and also does much more.

My fear now is that my present version of the Kindle will be replaced by a higher spec, and the very reason I like it – it’s simplicity – will disappear. I know they have the touch screen versions, which I dislike, because I’d rather a simple click to turn the page than having to tap the screen; that’s why I bought the Kindle rather than the Kobo [correction: apparently there are clickable Kobos as well!]. My fear is that the ‘Retro’ Kindle (my version), like the magnificent, groundbreaking and never bettered Palm, will be overtaken by smart technology. Strange how technology can regress as well as go forward, or at least lose the simplicity and sophistication of its primary purpose in the search for secondary thrills. I said the Kindle was dazzling, but it’s actually the dullness that I like…

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