Francine Stock explores the hidden wonders of 2001: A Space Odyssey in a special edition.
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Aleks Krotoski explores the unforeseen consequences of a frictionless digital life.
It’s the life we’re told we want, where we just shout at a device and our needs are met as quickly as the supply chain allows. Aleks Krotoski explores frictionless digital living.
But is there value in friction? Aleks hears from someone who’s life depends on it, mountaineer Andy Kirkpatrick. He has a reputation for stacking the odds against himself as much as possible; long routes, often climbed alone in the worst of conditions. Back on the ground Andy also needs friction to not get complacent, accept others views without question, to keep moving forward.
Without friction we risk falling prey to what economist Umair Haque describes as the infantilisation economy. One where we are diminished by being able to have our every need met by Amazon’s Alexa. And the cost isn’t just to us but also to the army of digital serfs peddling about in all weathers with those trademark boxes on their backs. Its a future that was foreseen as far back as the late 19th century by the likes of Nietzsche in his descriptions of the ‘last men’ a humanity living the most vanilla of existences without challenge or ambition to change.
Nothing sums this up better than the food replacement industry. No time to shop, cook, chew? Get everything you need nutritionally in a drink like Soylent or Huel - all in the name of efficiency. Its a world that fascinates anthropologist Jan English-Luek who for over 20 years has been observing trends in silicon valley.
Ultimately Aleks will ask what we’re saving all this time and effort for and do we ever reap the benefits? Or does it just keep us where the digital world wants us, consuming in ever more efficient ways.
As a young woman, Stephanie Shirley worked at the Dollis Hill Research Station building computers from scratch: but she told young admirers that she worked for the Post Office, hoping they would think she sold stamps. In the early 60s she changed her name to Steve and started selling computer programmes to companies who had no idea what they were or what they could do, employing only mothers who worked from home writing code by hand with pen and pencil and then posted it to her. By the mid-80s her software company employed eight thousand people, still mainly women with children. She made an absolute fortune but these days Stephanie thinks less about making money and much more about how best to give it away.
Claire L. Evans, Author of Broad Band- The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet | Internet History Podcast
Claire Evans is the author of the new book: Broad Band The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet. This is the best tech history book I’ve read in a while and you know I read them all. Of special note, considering our 90s-heavy focus on this podcast, the book includes the stories of Word.com, which was a competitor to Feed.com (which we’ve previously covered) and Women.com which was a competitor to Ivillage (which, again, we’ve spoke at length about). But you also get an amazing portair of tech in the 1970s, hypertext as a movement outside of the web, and stories about amazing women like Grace Hopper and Jake Feinler.
The morality of robots: Genevieve Bell’s predictions for the future of AI - Conversations - ABC Radio
Genevieve had never imagined a life in technology, until a chance meeting in a bar in Palo Alto.
A chance meeting in a bar one night led a young Australian academic Genevieve Bell into a job she’d never expected.
She was hired by software maker, Intel, as their resident anthropologist.
Her boss asked her to find out how people outside America were using their cell phones.
This began fourteen years of helping translate how humans use technology back to the software engineers who make the machines in the first place.
Now Genevieve is back in Australia, in a job which aims to transform how we think about the interconnectedness of the technological world.
In an era of rising anxiety about Artificial Intelligence, she says many predictions about the AI-driven future are far too apocalyptic.
Lord Byron’s only legitimate child is championed by Konnie Huq.
From Banking, to air traffic control systems and to controlling the United States defence department there’s a computer language called ‘Ada’ - it’s named after Ada Lovelace - a 19th century mathematician and daughter of Lord Byron. Ada Lovelace is this week’s Great Life. She’s been called many things - but perhaps most poetically by Charles Babbage whom she worked with on a steam-driven calculating machine called the Difference Engine an ‘enchantress of numbers’, as her similarly mathematical mother had been called by Lord Byron a "princess of parallelograms". Augusta ‘Ada’ Byron was born in 1815 but her parents marriage was short and unhappy; they separated when Ada was one month old and she never saw her father , he died when was eight years old. Her mother, Annabella concerned Ada might inherit Byron’s "poetic tendencies" had her schooled her in maths and science to try to combat any madness inherited from her father. She’s championed by TV presenter and writer -Konnie Huq, most well known for presenting the BBC’s children’s programme - ‘Blue Peter’ and together with expert- Suw Charman- Anderson, a Social technologist, they lift the lid on the life of this mathematician, now regarded as the first computer programmer with presenter Matthew Parris.
In the sixth episode, guest host Aaron Lammer speaks with designer and professor Molly Wright Steenson about pattern languages, the important similarities between architecture and AI, and the publication of her new book Architectural Intelligence. Learn more 👉 design.google/podcasts
Two ways to save humanity
Mann titled his talk “The Edge of the Petri Dish.”
He explained, “If you drop a couple protozoa in a Petri dish filled with nutrient goo, they will multiply until they run out of resources or drown in their own wastes.”
Humans in the world Petri dish appear to be similarly doomed, judging by our exponential increases in population, energy use, water use, income, and greenhouse gases.
How to save humanity?
Opposing grand approaches emerged from two remarkable scientists in the mid-20th century who fought each other their entire lives.
Their solutions were so persuasive that their impassioned argument continues 70 years later to dominate how we think about dealing with the still-exacerbating exponential impacts.
Norman Borlaug, the one Mann calls “the Wizard,” was a farm kid trained as a forester.
In 1944 he found himself in impoverished Mexico with an impossible task—solve the ancient fungal killer of wheat, rust.
First he invented high-volume crossbreeding, then shuttle breeding (between winter wheat and spring wheat), and then semi-dwarf wheat.
The resulting package of hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizer, and irrigation became the Green Revolution that ended most of hunger throughout the world for the first time in history.
There were costs.
The diversity of crops went down.
Excess fertilizer became a pollutant.
Agriculture industrialized at increasing scale, and displaced smallhold farmers fled to urban slums.
William Vogt, who Mann calls “the Prophet,” was a poor city kid who followed his interest in birds to become an isolated researcher on the revolting guano islands of Peru.
He discovered that periodic massive bird die-offs on the islands were caused by the El Niño cycle pushing the Humboldt Current with its huge load of anchovetas away from the coast and starving the birds.
The birds were, Vogt declared, subject to an inescapable “carrying capacity.“
That became the foundational idea of the environmental movement, later expressed in terms such as “limits to growth,” “ecological overshoot,” and “planetary boundaries.”
Vogt spelled out the worldview in his powerful 1948 book, The Road to Survival.
The Prophets-versus-Wizards debate keeps on raging—artisanal organic farming versus factory-like mega-farms; distributed solar energy versus centralized fossil fuel refineries and nuclear power plants; dealing with climate change by planting a zillion trees versus geoengineering with aerosols in the stratosphere.
The question continues: How do we best manage our world Petri dish?
Can humanity change its behavior at planet scale?
Mann ended by pointing out that in 1800 slavery was universal in the world and had been throughout history.
Then it ended.
Prophets say that morally committed abolitionists did it.
Wizards say that clever labor-saving machinery did it.
Maybe it was the combination.
Millions are robbed of the power of speech by illness, injury or lifelong conditions. Can the creation of bespoke digital voices transform their ability to communicate?
My good friend Erika Hall returns to the show. She’s a founder and principal at Mule Design, and author of the forthcoming book "Conversational Design."
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