Sunday, October 18, 2015

Potpourri: Revisiting Smartphones, Musing on Cyborgs and Editing DNA

I feel that it’s necessary to attempt to clear up any misunderstandings concerning my previous column, “Smartphones more distracting, isolating than useful” . The title I originally submitted was “Why I don’t own a Smartphone” and my intent was to explain why smartphones are not for me, mainly because I realize how easily distracted I am. I most certainly did not wish to imply that smartphones should be shunned by everyone --- only that one must consider the downsides as well as the many upsides. Recall that the March 8, 2015 column, “”Accentuate the Positive...“ was entirely devoted to singing the praises of how and why smartphones are the perfect technology for advising troubled teens. So, one more time: if you think you can handle the downsides, then dive in but please weigh the decision carefully. As our elders have advised:. Look before you Leap.

More to the point, I stumbled onto a TED Talk: “Amber Case: We are all cyborgs now” which deals with much the same issues I raised in “Why I don’t Own a Smartphone” and extends it into the field of “cyborg anthropology”. Quite a mouthful. She begins her talk with the startling pronouncement, “ I would like to tell you all that you are all actually cyborgs, but not the cyborgs that you think. You're not RoboCop, and you're not Terminator, but you're cyborgs every time you look at a computer screen or use one of your cell phone devices.”

She goes on to give the classical definition of the word Cyborg: "an organism to which exogenous (fancy word for ‘outside the system’) components have been added for the purpose of adapting to new environments." and, from an anthropological perspective, describes how humans have pretty much always used tools of one kind or another but this new tool, this network of computers comprising the Internet, is different. Up until the dawn of the digital computer age (circa 1940) humanity used tools that extended physical limitations --- such as stone chisels, trebuchets and jet planes. This newest tool, the computer, the heart of the Internet, extends our minds. This idea is not new --- indeed Doug Engelbart ( referred to these new machines as “mind augmenters”. and Vannevar Bush: before him explored this idea shortly after World War II.


Space limits the number of insights Amber Case presents so it would be well worth your time to search for “ Amber Case: We are all cyborgs now.” It’s less than 8 minutes and it’s what Infotainment ought to be: educational, enlightening and enjoyable.

While I certainly am not an expert in molecular biology, it seems to me that “editing dna in human embryos” qualifies as an ethical issue between technology and society. If we look at it from a computer science viewpoint, the term “edit” is usually associated with files of text, graphics, music and the like ---certainly not human dna! For example, when I edit a text file, there are only three operations that can be performed: Insert, Delete and Replace (actually only two as Replace can be simulated by applying Delete and Insert appropriately but it’s convenient for the user to have a separate Replace operation).As an added bonus, most modern word processor apps provide an “UnDo” operation as well.

As we all know from our experience with Word processors, if we make a mistake while editing, it is possible, even easy, to correct the mistake. Not so (so far) when editing the dna of a human gene and this could lead to unintended consequences. So modifying a gene’s dna incorrectly is much much more than an “OOPS!” moment. While it is true that scientists usually have a good idea of the intended outcomes of an experiment there’s always that, no matter how minute, possibility of a disaster. Let’s hope that nothing goes wrong. For the gory details point your browser at:

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Why I don’t own a Smartphone

There are two reasons I don’t own a smartphone. The first is more complicated, so let’s address that one first. As a sometime Buddhist, an important goal, for me, is to be in the present moment. This is very difficult as I am easily distracted so if I don’t watch myself, on the way to the mailbox. for example, I can see some weeds in the garden which I start to pull and I discover a japanese get the idea. That’s problematic enough but there is an even more insidious force which diverts my attention and that is the ongoing conversation in my head which I guess many of us have. Zen Buddhists call that “the mad monkey” -- swinging from branch to branch, never stopping to experience the present moment. This buzzing in our minds works to divert our attention from what’s actually happening in the present moment and I believe certain technologies, like the smartphone, contribute to this unwelcome phenomenon.

My basic premise is that while we create technology, technology also changes us causing a strange symbiosis which can be summed up by the phrase,”I change It, It changes me.” I worry that if I acquire a smartphone, then I will be carrying around an internet-enabled computer and the temptation to use it will be overwhelming and I don’t want to be overwhelmed. This phenomenon is not limited to technology -- it can occur in the arts as well. Let’s take a look at how that goes.

Back in the olden times, people could only listen to music when played by live musicians. Granted, one had to have wealth enough to pay for this pleasure which excludes about 99% of us but, nonetheless that’s the way it used to be. As time progressed so did technology and by the early 20th century Edison had found a way to record sound waves and before we knew it, many more of us had phonographs and records to play on which the music was recorded. We then had the luxury of listening to the great composers whilst sitting in our living rooms and sipping a cup of tea or perhaps something stronger. We no longer had to travel to listen to music and most everyone thought this a “good thing”. But the experience of listening to music was mediated by the technology on which the music was recorded. There’s a good reason we call it ‘media” --- it mediates or intervenes between me and the direct experience and cannot help but mitigate it. It means that any experience mediated through technology is is necessarily diminished.

Then the music delivery technology begins to change fast. Still in the 20th century, Sony invents the Walkman and, as its name promises, allows us to leave our living rooms and go outside and isolate ourselves from our environment (this includes other people) while enjoying our chosen playlists. Many more modifications allowed us to arrive at the present day where our music arrives from “the Cloud” and is then transported into our ears via earphones from our smartphones.

Many would call this progress but it has a price. Technology has allowed us to isolate ourselves from one another. Worse, it raises a barrier between you and what’s happening right now --- the present moment. Is it worth the price? Everyone must decide that for themselves but many are not even aware that a decision has to made --- we just accept the new shiny technology as progress (a good thing) and fail to reflect on its dark side.

Due to limited space, I have left out several steps in the evolution of the relationship between music and technology (such as the probable fact that our ancestors played music on a bone flute about 40,000 years ago), but my claim stands: Technology mediates and thus has the ability to isolate as well. Personally, I think anything that comes between me and experiencing the present moment is not useful; it is a step backwards. And a step backwards can hardly be called “progress”.

The second reason I do not own a smartphone is that my wife has one and when I need it, I can borrow it from her.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Is the Internet Changing Us?

Do you ever wonder if technology like the Internet is changing us? If so, you’re not alone.

There are many people interested in this issue of how we create the technology but then it ends up changing us --- for the better? A good question.

Professor Sherry Turkle works in the Program of Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and is the founder and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Turkle has also presented two very interesting TED talks. TED is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment and Design devoted to spreading ideas via interesting speakers giving short presentations on a very wide range of subjects; if you have not yet viewed, treat yourself to one at your earliest convenience.

In her first TED talk in 1996, Turkle came across as an evangelist for the Internet. She enthusiastically endorsed its promise of connecting humankind and believed that we would use the information gained through this virtual world to enhance our endeavors and make us more fully human. However, in 2012 she did another TED talk recanting her prior position. Instead of enhancing our lives, she argued that it is instead degrading them. Technology has allowed us to hide from real encounters with others as well as assuage our boredom. Her exact words were, “As a psychologist, what excited me most was the idea that we would use what we learned in the virtual world about ourselves, about our identity, to live better lives in the real world.”

On the other hand, she admits at the start of her 2012 talk that she loves getting texts; in fact she had just received one from her daughter just minutes before going on, “Mom, you will rock.” Turkle goes on to point out, “I'm still excited by technology, but I believe, and I'm here to make the case, that we're letting it take us places that we don't want to go...those little devices in our pockets are so psychologically powerful that they don't only change what we do, they change who we are. ”

Her epiphany came when she was visiting a nursing home where she was part of team treating an elderly woman who was grieving over a child who had recently died. Turkle’s part was to supply a “sociable robot” to give the patient the calming feeling that they were understood. This particular robot was constructed to resemble a baby seal and it was doing an amazing job of comforting her as it appeared to be understanding and following the conversation Many on the team found this amazing, but Turkle did not. She remembers, “...that woman was trying to make sense of her life with a machine that had no experience of the arc of a human life. ..That robot can't empathize. It doesn't face death. It doesn't know life...We expect more from technology and less from each other. And I ask myself, "Why have things come to this?"

Have things come to this? I believe so and I agree with Turkle that the root of the problem is control; in this case, it’s control over where you choose to put your attention. She says, “So you want to go to that board meeting, but you only want to pay attention to the bits that interest you. And some people think that's a good thing. But you can end up hiding from each other, even as we're all constantly connected to each other.”

I would add another factor to why we spend so much time “alone together”and that is: boredom.. We humans, at least in this culture, just cannot deal with being bored for any appreciable length of time. Whether we’re in traffic, waiting at the check-out or just plain “at loose ends” it’s a frustrating and often claustrophobic experience. So, to combat the boredom, we have TV, smartphones, and even books to assuage the pain of boredom. What to do?

Ironically, there’s an app for that, “Headspace” which is described in the July 6&15 New Yorker.. “The Higher Life”. Is this Two Wrongs making a Right or is it just fighting fire with fire (which, in fact, works in extreme cases? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Around The Internet

Although I base my research primarily on articles from the New Yorker and Atlantic Magazines, the New York Times and the Washington Post newspapers as well as several websites such as the MIT Technology Review, Google Tech, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, today’s column springs from two articles in the 5/24/10 Press Republican. Although They both appear on the same page, but they illustrate vastly different aspects of technology’s effect on society.

The first, “Researchers making strides with Cheyenne supercomputer” describes how the biggest, newest, fastest computer can help society with solving problems that were previously deemed intractable such as accurate weather and earthquake prediction. Housed in Cheyenne, Wyoming this “giant brain”, appropriately named “Yellowstone” can perform 1.5 quadrillion operations per second.

When I read this fact, I paused and remembered my experience working on an earlier supercomputer, the ILLIAC IV, during the late 60s to early 70s at the University of Illinois (you may recall HAL’s reference to ILLIAC I in Kubrick’s classic film “2001” ). It’s claim to fame was that it was capable of performing one million operations per second --- that’s a billion times faster. This line of thought led me to considering the obvious question, “What kind of ‘operation’ are we talking about here? Surely not brain surgery. If you guessed that it’s more likely some internal electronic computer operation such as doing arithmetic you’d be right on track. In fact the ILLIAC IV was advertised as achieving a “megaflop” in one second which was an acronym for “ one million floating point additions”. And what, you may ask, is a “floating point addition” as opposed to a plain vanilla one? Well,like any technical problem, the details are somewhat technical but the gist is that the computer circuitry for adding whole numbers is simpler and faster than the circuitry for adding numbers with decimal points (which are called “floating point”), so, unlike in a social situation, it’s more glorious achievement to do a “flop”.

ILLIAC IV was not a commercial success; only a few ILLIACs were sold to government agencies but many of its technical innovations were incorporated into future generations of supercomputers leading to Yellowstone. (Makes you wonder if the Edsel possibly had similar effects on automobiles...)

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry after I read the second article on the Science page, “Ready for liquor bottles smart enough to talk to Smartphones?”. When I first started following the development of the “Internet of Things” I was moderately impressed with the idea that milk cartons could be designed with gizmos that broadcast to your smartphone/watch when they were past expiration date or down to one-quarter and that it was time to start thinking about adding them to your grocery list. But this “advance” seems to me to have crossed the threshold of common sense. Based on those frames that continuously scroll through photographs of your grandchild’s last birthday or your recent travels, this advance allows you to post a scrolling text from your smart device (smartwatch, smartphone, tablet, pc, etc, etc etc...) that will display ala Times Square Banner Headlines on your...wait for it....liquor bottle.

While I can understand the benefits accrued to the purveyor of spirits (it can also track the location of the bottle which, in and of itself, is a tiny bit creepy) I fail to see how it will help me become a better person (unless, in its next version, it will sound warnings that I’ve had my limit and refuse to dispense for 24 hours). This is a good example of an NTTT technology (Not Thought Through Thoroughly).

On the plus side, here’s an amusing example that low tech still survives somewhere in this world: “Police in India this week arrested a pigeon on charges of spying for Pakistan. The bird,..., reportedly had a "stamped message" on its body that ... included a Pakistani phone number. An X-ray of the bird didn't show anything out of the ordinary, but police have nevertheless registered it as a "suspected spy" and are keeping it in custody.” (

My faith in a Deity with a sense of humor has been restored.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

No Column for May

 Travelling this month resulted in no column rather than one NTTT (Not Thoroughly Thought Through ;)

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Right to be Let Alone

“There is a concern that the Internet could be used to commit crimes and that advanced encryption could disguise such activity. However, we do not provide the government with phone jacks outside our homes for unlimited wiretaps. Why, then, should we grant government the Orwellian capability to listen at will and in real time to our communications across the Web?”

The preceding was a direct quote made almost 20 years ago by John Ashcroft as a Republican Senator in a statement criticizing the Clinton administration’s proposal to place an encryption/transmission device ( nicknamed “Clipper Chip”) into every US phone. This would have allowed the FBI and other national security agencies access to the phone calls made by all Americans. While the Clipper Chip proposal was never implemented, the Privacy issues it raised in the 1990s have returned with a vengeance to the current national discussion of Security vs Privacy. (

Ashcroft went on to become the Attorney General of the United States of America during the George W. Bush administration and although a staunch conservative, he might be surprised by the current actions of the NSA to expand its domestic spying capabilities. Ashcroft, as well as other critics, have cited unwarranted phone surveillance as a violation of the Fourth Amendment which includes protection of citizens’ privacy from the US government.

Another reason supporters defend the right to privacy is they trust the government to “promote the general Welfare” of its citizens and this includes, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, more than a century ago, has famously said, “the right to let alone” (not “left” alone as it is often quoted). And while we may argue over the meaning of “general welfare” and even whether the Preamble grants certain rights to all citizens, most agree that privacy is an important component of the good society.

A comprehensive and interesting analysis of this issue, by Stuart S.Taylor, Jr., can be found at :

The article begins with an attention-grabbing sidebar containing a hatful of information it has gathered from you just visiting the site (although, it listed my town as Redcay rather than Beekmantown). The article contains “The divergent views of four respected experts help frame the debate over the future of the NSA in the Snowden Era.”, a comprehensive history of covert government operations and intelligence gathering, short “Word on the Street” video opinion polls and podcasts, as well as a nice graphical timeline explaining the major Supreme Court decisions shaping the interpretation of the Fourth Amendment. Comments on the role and effectiveness of the NSA’s methods vary from, “ When searching for needles in a haystack, you need the whole haystack." to “They're draining the ocean in order to catch a few fish.” Despite the author’s obvious bias against Snowden’s motives I would recommend it to you most highly.

As the link above reveals, Oliver asks Snowden some tough questions such as why he released this cache of classified documents to journalists without reading all of them and whether he thought through the consequences of his actions before he released them.

The video also shows how little US citizens care about domestic NSA surveillance and while some recognize Snowden’s name, they are unsure of who he is and what he did. The underlying serious purpose of Oliver’s interview is to rekindle interest in the Privacy vs Security debate as Congress must act by this June to renew, revise or let lapse those sections of the Patriot Act which allow what Snowden calls, “domestic spying” and the government terms, “intelligence gathering”.

I am not arguing against the need for security; we humans need our society to protect us from one another because, well, we’re only human. But like most real-world situations, this is not a simple black vs white choice as too much security stifles individual freedom and too little may be asking for trouble. Our job is to find an appropriate balance. That said, it would be wise to remember Hecate’s warning (in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”) about overconfidence in our ability to control our world: “You all know that security is mortals’ chiefest enemy.”

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Accentuate the Positive...

Most media emphasize negative stories over positive ones. We’re more likely to see headlines like, “Fire Destroys Local Chicken Coop” or “Yemen invades Ukraine” rather than “How Technology helps Suicidal Teens”. So, to help balance the scales, here is a positive story about technology.

The Feb 9, 2015 New Yorker Magazine contains an inspiring piece, “R U There?” by Alice Gregory describing the work of the Crisis Text Line ( Nancy Lublin (CEO) and Stephanie Shih have teamed up to create a crisis hotline targeted toward teenagers that uses only text messages to communicate. The rationale is that this is a more natural, effective and non-threatening approach for communicating with teens.

The rationale behind this innovative approach is that texting is in a teen’s DNA (almost) and is usually their main method of communication with peers --- landlines and phone calls are so 1990s. As Gregory points out, “Communications by text message is halting and asynchronous [not synchronized], which can be frustrating when you’re waiting for a reply but liberating when you don’t want to respond. If you’re a parent,you know that, even if your son does not text you back about where he is, he has read your message. If you are a distressed teen or a counsellor, you know that what you say will be read.”

Investigations performed at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research back this up: “People are more likely to disclose sensitive information via text messages than in phone conversations.” Apparently the privacy afforded by texting overrides the fear that a record of the conversation is somewhere in cyberspace. Texting can also hide emotions (tears) and seems to move the conversation straight to the point much faster than voice. It also allows clients the ultimate privacy: not only do others in proximity not hear them --- they do not hear their own voice making embarrassing revelations. This facilitates a more open conversation and hopefully, a more effective prescription from the counsellor.

At a personal level, I remember when, back in the nineties, we were running our Computer Science program using a large centralized computer which was accessed by the students via remote terminals (sort of like your PC or Mac but not as smart) whose screens were capable of displaying only alphanumeric characters (the digits 0-9, the upper and lower case alphabetic characters and a few special punctuational characters like: ,./?() etc.). One cluster of these terminals was in a small room just outside the faculty offices so we could help students who were stuck on a programming assignment. One day I noticed the room was empty except for two students sitting next to each other typing away and occasionally giggling. I surreptitiously looked over at their screens and saw they were texting one another using the system chat software. My first reaction was to look away as a courtesy to their privacy but not before it registered that they were indeed chatting at a very superficial level --- much as we all do when making idle conversation ( Whassup? Not much. ...)

My subsequent reaction was, ‘Oh, no --- we’re doomed!” If the next generation prefers to communicate through a heavily mediated technology when they are sitting right next to each other and could use a perfectly good old-fashioned method like talking face-to-face, then civilization as we know it must be on the downward road (paved with good intentions) to Chaos.

But as time has passed, my judgement has softened. Texting allows the user more control over the conversation; you don’t have to respond immediately to a text, you can take a few minutes to mull over your response. A text message is less annoying to receive than a phone call and it’s more private --- especially when you’re in a public place.

An ironic development allows newer smartphones to provide an option where you can speak your message and it gets converted to text which you then can send as a text message. So we seem to have gone full circle: I speak into my phone which converts it to text and then sends it. I’m still waiting for the technology that allows me to send messages using brain waves.

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