technology

Beyond 2000

You can fight progress 

If you had told the makers of Beyond 2000 that by 2012, we would be carrying large phones around in the pockets of our skinny jeans, they would have laughed in your face.
“By 2012,” they would have replied, “cellphones will be invisible and weightless.”
“And as for skinny jeans, what normal person can look good in those?”

WELL UP YOURS BEYOND 2000, BECAUSE THIS IS OUR REALITY NOW.

In the short(ish) time since I finished high school, cellphones have gone from very large, to very small, and back to quite large again.  Meanwhile, trouser legs have tapered away at such an alarming rate that new vocabulary has had to be invented (cue the “jeggings”).  It’s a cruel twist of fate that one can barely fit a foot in a pair of jeans these days, let alone a smart phone.

Is this progress?  Is this the brave new world that scientists of the 90s promised me?  Because when I watched Beyond 2000 as a child, I saw (somewhat pixelated) images of a futuristic utopia, filled with hovercrafts, solar-powered cars, and robots that could cook you breakfast with a single thought.  Like Darth Vader – but nice, and helpful around the house.


I did not see images of my future self dangling my (ex-) boyfriend’s cellphone out the window after one too many ‘technological mini-breaks’.  I did not see myself shaking my fist at the sky as yet another friend textually cancelled our plans at the last minute (yes, I just used the word “textually.”  THIS IS WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT).  I could not have fathomed the technology-induced rage my future self would experience, all in the name of progress.

Now, I don’t consider myself an angry person.  But I am not above a good old progress-induced rant.  And if I had to order and number my rants of late, they would probably look a little bit like this:

1. Facebook status updates.  
I don’t want to know what my more popular, happy and successful acquaintances are having for dinner, or whose perfect boyfriend has cooked them pancakes and found the cure for cancer in the last ten minutes.
GET OFF THE COMPUTER AND GO EAT YOUR FRIGGIN’ PANCAKES.

2. Text language
OMG. WTF is up with TXT language?  Trying to read it pains me.  Hearing it spoken aloud makes we want to sit in a corner and rock gently.
As I understand it, abbreviations were created to shorten words and make life easier, so saying them aloud is in direct opposition with that intent.  For instance, the letter ‘W’ is three syllables when spoken.  The word ‘what’ is only one.
WHY ARE YOU MAKING IT HARDER FOR YOURSELVES?  And also, WHAT ARE YOU SAYING???

3. Flakiness.
In times BC, (before cellphones), you made plans to do things and then you went and did those things.  You simply didn’t have the option of flaking out on someone, because that would make you the arsehole who left your friend waiting in the rain.  And nobody wants to be the arsehole who left their friend waiting in the rain…right?
The gift of cellphones has also given us the blessed gift of an escape clause; from any event, for any reason, or hell – for no reason at all!  Tired?  Got a better offer?  Just throw a few words into cyberspace, and you’re off the hook!  LOL.

4.  Technological slavery
Our forefathers worked damn hard to abolish slavery.  We owe it to William Wilberforce and his compatriots, and to the slavesthemselves, to resist the new and oppressive force of technological slavery.
JUST BECAUSE YOUR PHONE BEEPED, DOES NOT MEAN YOU HAVE TO LOOK AT IT.  Friends must be liberated from the perceived need to interrupt our very WITTY AND FASCINATING conversations, in order to read a message that is probably just their cellphone provider reminding them to top up.  It is WRONG and UNJUST, and also, it is ANNOYING ME.

5.  Divided attention
Buddha must be rolling in his grave, because never before has there been a society less present to the given moment.  Case in point, between starting and finishing that last sentence, I replied to an email, wrote a text message, checked facebook, and asked my flatmate if he wouldn’t mind picking up some milk on the way home.
I’M SORRY BUDDHA.  I’M SO SORRY.

6.  Conflict resolution
In the past, the art of healthy debate was alive and well.  I spent hours, weeks, of my teenage life debating petty and irrelevant details with my friends, without anyone conducting a google search and spoiling the fun.  I recall a particularly heated argument over how many times the word “gonna” featured in the N’Sync song “It’s Gonna Be Me”, and then another about whether it was the air or thetension we were proverbially cutting with a knife.  That debate ended, not with a conclusive google search, but with a lunchbox hurtling through the air.
And life seemed the richer for it.

I know, I know, it’s not all bad.  Technology has given us real gifts too.  Like the ability to watch videos of cats from all over the world; to skype friends and family; and to watch little videos of ourselves in the corner of the screen while we are skyping friends and family.
What did they just say?  I DON’T KNOW BECAUSE I WAS CHECKING MYSELF OUT.

I know we can’t go back.  If I’m being honest, I wouldn’t even want that.  I came to that sudden and unexpected realisation when, halfway through writing this, my laptop was stolen from my flat.  My first reaction was to wonder if the technology gods were smiting me for my ingratitude.  I tried to see the funny side for a while, but then I gave up and just cried instead.
It was like Janet Jackson said: I didn’t know what I had until it was gone.  I didn’t realise how much I loved my laptop until it had been wrenched out of the wall and carried away out my flatmate’s window.

My laptop wasn’t just a piece of technology that froze at the worst times and crashed without saving.  It let me watch Downton Abbey in bed.  It let me work from home when it was raining outside.  It let me email my insurance company, and order a new laptop.
And when it was suddenly gone, I had to find other things to do, like play the guitar and talk to my flatmates and not get jealous of events I was missing out on.

And to think.  I had so much time to think.  During that surreal THREE DAY technology hiatus between losing my laptop and acquiring a new one, I came to a decision.  I decided to stop ranting about technology so much, and to stop writing my rants down and publishing them in places for other people to read them too.  I decided, instead, to be the change I wanted to see in the world.
(SEE WHAT HAPPENS WITHOUT A LAPTOP?  GANDHI HAPPENS.  GANDHI.)

I would not pike on invitations that I had previously accepted.  I would only check my phone during a coffee date if someone’s life depended on it  (or perhaps while the other person was in the toilet).  I would only start petty arguments about things that could never be proven by a google search.  And I would stop inwardly berating people who posted excessively happy status updates on facebook.
God bless you, perfect pancake-eating couples.

Maybe you can’t fight progress.  But you can point and laugh at it a little bit.

Looking forward to nostalgia

I like nostalgia.  I really do.
I like it so much I get nostalgic for nostalgia.  I long for the good old days in the 90s, that I spent reminiscing about the good old days in the 80s.  I spend precious moments imagining my future self, looking fondly back on the moment I’m currently experiencing.  Such is my love for dreaming about the past, that I often make important life decisions based not on logic or aspiration, but rather on the opportunity for future nostalgia.  I went backpacking for a year in Asia, not simply because I wanted to go backpacking for a year in Asia, but because I wanted to have gone backpacking for a year in Asia.  I couldn’t wait to come home and reflect nostalgically on my year abroad.

And then there are the eras I’ve never even lived through!  The roaring 20s.  The swinging 60s.  You name it, I’ve probably highly idealized it.
In a recent fit of 80s nostalgia (a decade that finished when I was merely eight, but no matter, I remember it like it was yesterday), I watched The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink.  Within five minutes I was longing to live in the 80s again, but this time as a teenager, and ideally, as Molly Ringwald herself.   Then I did what anyone in my present day position would have done: I googled her to see where she had ended up.

What did I really expect?   That she would still be driving around in a pink car, sewing her own prom dresses, and applying lipstick from her cleavage?
(Yes, I did).

To my profound disappointment, I found that she was now…in 2012.  Or rather, she was no longer living in the 80s.   We were living in the same time, at the same time.  She looked normal.  She seemed to have thoroughly adapted to the new millennium.  There was not a visible trace of 80s nostalgia in her.

It made me stop and wonder: where was all my nostalgia really coming from, and why?  Was it a problem I needed to fix, or just a natural and healthy way of cherishing the past?

When I looked a little deeper, I found that up until a few centuries ago, nostalgia – that warm, bittersweet feeling we all know so well – was actually considered a form of melancholy.  It was considered a precursor to suicide, and a diagnosis for soldiers that deserted their posts.
The word “nostalgia,” based on the greek words nóstos (“homecoming”) and álgos (“ache”), was originally coined in 1688, by Johannes Hofer, a Swiss doctor working with mercenaries longing for their homeland.  At that time nostalgia was a medical condition, linked to illness, and even death.[1]

But (thankfully) more recent studies have found nostalgia to actually have psychological benefits.  Nostalgia expert Dr Krystine Bacho says that nostalgia can improve mood, increase self-esteem, and infuse our lives with a sense of meaning.
“Nostalgic reminiscence helps a person maintain a sense of continuity despite the constant flow of change over time,” she says.  It can also help us cope with loneliness, and strengthen our sense of social connectedness.[2]

So, perhaps my highly idealized view of the past is not such a concern after all.  Perhaps it actually displays how sickeningly well adjusted I am.  But can that explain my intense nostalgia for eras I’ve never even experienced?

Dr Batcho distinguishes this as a different form of nostalgia; what she calls “historical or social nostalgia.”  She says that  “individuals who feel nostalgia for a past era are more likely to feel dissatisfied with the present and/or perceive a past time period as better than the present.”  (Which, I would infer, is bad.)

Bugger.  It is true that I spent the days following my 80s movie marathon strangely longing for shoulder pads, and resenting the presence of smart phones and non- synthesised music in my life.

If I had lived back in the days when nostalgia was a medical condition, doctors might have prescribed me a variety of remedies, including purging (no thanks), leeches (no thanks) or opium (hmm..).  In 1733, a nostalgic Russian soldier was allegedly buried alive by his army officer [3] (I think I’ll stick with the nostalgia, if you don’t mind).

These days it’s a little trickier.  How do you cure something that’s no longer considered a medical ailment?  Svetlana Boym, author of The Future of Nostalgia, calls modern day nostalgia “the incurable modern condition.”
“The twentieth century began with a futuristic utopia,” Boym writes, “and ended with nostalgia.”  She hypothesizes that globalization and the accelerated pace of modern life have deepened nostalgic longings.
“Nostalgia tries to slow down time,” she says. [4]

Hmm.   Could my nostalgia be in some way connected to the recurrent impulses I feel to hurl cellphones, computers, photocopiers, and other technological paraphernalia off of tall buildings?  Could my longing for the 80s be not simply due to the outrageously fabulous fashion, music, and dance montage scenes; but also due to the fact they were so gloriously free of technology?
Pac Man was the pinnacle of computerised fun.  Cellphones were so outlandishly huge nobody could fit them in their handbags.  Life was simpler.

But hey, you can’t fight progress.  So I guess I’ll just cash in my nostalgic psychological benefits and console myself with the fact that in twenty years, I’ll look back on this decade as the prime of my life.   These will be the good old days.

Ahh, future nostalgia.  There’s so much to look forward to.

 



[1] Nostalgia (2012).  Retrieved February 9, 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nostalgia

[2] ‘Tis the Season for Nostalgia: Holiday Reminiscing Can Have Psychological Benefits (2011). Retrieved February 9, 2012, from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2011/12/nostalgia.aspx

[3] Nostalgia (2012).  Retrieved February 9, 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nostalgia

[4] The Future of Nostalgia (2002, Basic Books), as cited by Lambert, Craig; Hypochondria of the Heart (2001).  Retrieved February 9, 2012, from http://harvardmagazine.com/2001/09/hypochondria-of-the-hear.html

 

 

A nation of sheep?

It has been a fantastic year for unoriginal ideas. First Wellywood, then Happy Feet, and most recently Sonny Wool – the psychic sheep who predicts the winner of Rugby World Cup matches. Could somebody please just hurry up and sue us for plagiarism?

There once was a time when we were proud of our creativity – our ‘no. 8 wire spirit’. From splitting the atom, to jet boats, to medical respirators, New Zealand boasts a long history of science and discovery that has really put ‘kiwi ingenuity’ on the world map. Looking back, I see the likes of Richard Pearse, Burt Monroe and John Britten, all of whom took on and beat the world with extraordinary creations from the humble back sheds of their quarter acre sections. I think we can agree that invention and innovation form an important part of who we are as New Zealanders. Given recent events, however, I feel we could now be on the brink of losing this long standing emblem of cultural pride.

But rather than despair that Hollywood does want to sue us for plagiarism, or that sheep-shagger jokes are now being augmented with straight-out sheep jokes, I recently decided to jump ship and embrace our unoriginality. Once I did, a world of possibilities opened up before my very eyes. Indeed, I soon realised that New Zealand has something quite unique staring it in the face just waiting to be harnessed and tapped. Something so unique, in fact, that it has the potential to put New Zealand right back in the driver’s seat as a world leader in its chosen field. This idea has been quietly brewing for several years now, but it wasn’t until I read of Sonny Wool that the penny finally dropped. Are you ready for it? I propose… that New Zealand become a world leader of unoriginal ideas.

Think of the possibilities! We could become a tourist hotspot of unoriginality! People would come from all over the world to see what we copied next.

But can we achieve such a lofty target? In consideration of the Wellywood, Happy Feet, Sonny Wool trifecta, I suggest that we are already well on track. That being the case, only minimal financial investment will be needed to turn this vision into a reality. Plus, that money we do invest will multiply many times over in return due to increased tourism.

Of course, before we can start making grandiose claims about being the world leader, we will first need to develop our unoriginal infrastructure. On top of our already existing exact replica of Stonehenge in the Wairarapa, I figure we’ll need three more attractions. Here are my suggestions. One: the Golden Straight Bridge – we build a suspension bridge across the Cook Straight. Two: the Leaning Tower of Hamilton. Three, and this will be the most expensive and politically divisive: Palmerston North, Venice style – we flood the streets of Palmerston North so that people can commute by boat.

To a large extent, our choice of attractions will determine the success or failure of our strategy. But that is not all that will be required. To complete the transition to a nationwide culture of unoriginality will require a firm resolve and a steely-eyed determination to dumb ourselves right down. As we have proved to be quite a smart bunch in the past, we will have to really go for the throat – or the brains, as it were – of our nation.

But what does this mean in practice?

Much of our nation’s brains reside in the scientific research institutions scattered about the country. If we want to harness our unoriginality, we are going to have to stop those pesky scientists from coming up with their new and interesting ideas. In short, we will need a publicly funded science and innovation (S&I) system that stifles the creative spirit and hinders innovation and invention. Now, anyone familiar with the level of discontent our scientists hold towards the S&I system since Rogernomics will be well aware that our system is actually not too far from this already.

The success or failure of our publicly funded S&I system is, to a large extent, dependent on the decisions of the Government which, it seems, could swing in either direction. On the one hand, it appears the Government is opposed to unoriginality and is instead tracking towards a more effective S&I system. Actions such as the establishment of the Ministry of Science and Innovation; the development of a national science and innovation strategy; the appointment of a Chief Science Adviser; and incentives that recognise outstanding achievements in science will all shift us closer to that vibrant, collaborative model that would see us truly realise our intellectual potential.

On the other hand, there are still several aspects of our publicly funded S&I system that foster unoriginality and hinder creativity. The following list is informed by two open letters from hundreds of scientists to the Government; informal interviews with scientists and scientific stakeholders; literature review; and unpublished research from the Sustainable Future Institute in Wellington. There are five key aspects of our S&I sector that will see unoriginality prevail.

First (and most importantly, in my humble opinion), the competitive funding model that pits scientists against scientists in a desperate scramble for scarce research funds. Instead of a culture of sharing and collaboration between the greatest minds of our country, scientists protect their ideas from each other like precious bullion.

Second, investment of public funds in S&I remains low compared to the OECD average.

Third, instead of doing what scientists do best – science – our best scientists waste vast amounts of precious time filling out tiresome forms to meet the requirements of public research funding proposals. The Foundation of Research Science and Technology (FoRST) weren’t nicknamed the Foundation of Really Serious Timewasting without reason.

Fourth, the commercial imperative of the Crown Research Institute Act 1992 that requires CRIs to make a profit each year.

Fifth, a lack of opportunity for postdoctoral scientists due to the replacement of FoRST-funded Postdoctoral Scholarships with the Rutherford Discovery Fellowships. Couple this with low overall postdoctoral funding, and you have two important elements of the ‘brain drain’.

To recap, New Zealand is poised between two futures: a return to the creative spirit and a re-establishment of our no. 8 wire culture; or forward to a loud and proud future of unoriginality and mediocrity. I’m all for unoriginality! Who’s with me?

Infostructures

Freerange Press is proud to release the first of its academic publications.   Increasing energy costs (Guardian Article today saying Britain needs to prepare for 70s style oil shocks) are putting massive pressure on our existing transport systems. This combined with ubiquitous presence of technology in our lives is creating new dynamic opportunities in public transport. INFOSTRUCTURE presents the vision of interactive and responsive urban public transport environments where new forms of communication and information access are enabled through an overlay of urban digital media technologies.

Featuring research and projects undertaken by master students in architecture at the University of Technology, Sydney and Bachelor students in design computing at the University of Sydney, the book explores the augmentation of existing public transport environments with urban digital media technologies, to set in motion a transformation from infrastructure to ‘infostructure(s).’

Precedent based research and technology investigations underpin the twenty featured student projects, that address a nexus of space, urban media, sensor and mobile phone technology. The research presented in this book is a foundation for a series of future infostructure projects.

Only $25 online. Please go to the Freerange Shop for purchasing details.

The authors of this book combine several years of experience in designing for public transport environments and in urban computing.

  • Nicole Gardner is an architect with project experience in infrastructure planning and design and is currently teaching and lecturing at the University of Technology, Sydney.
  • Dr. M. Hank Haeusler has researched, taught and designed media facades and information architecture and has written and published several books on media architecture. He is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney.
  • Dr. Martin Tomitsch has a background in informatics and interaction design. His work has been published in international conferences on human-computer interaction and ubiquitous computing. He is currently a lecturer at the University of Sydney.

The Quake

As history uncurls her fingers from Christchurch, the stories of loss, survival, and the stupid blunt force of an indifferent planet emerge from the dust.  For those of us with friends and family in Christchurch, the test of our support is not of the past 6 days, but in the coming days, weeks, and months when the adrenaline will fade and the long slow and tedious task of re constructing lives will begin.

While the pain is individual and the stories unique to Christchurch the pattern is universal and the suffering is the same shared recently by communities around the world, from government murders in Egypt, deadly floods in Queensland, civil unrest in Libya, floods in Pakistan, droughts in China and Nth Korea, and bombs in Iraq, the list goes on.

With this in mind I’ve been impressed by the surprising humanizing role of technology in the last few weeks.  Most of the time these devices and interfaces that now consume our lives seem to take us away from the nature, loved ones, and things we really appreciate.  The frustrations to technologies that not only consume our working and relaxing hours, but are also increasingly providing mundane fodder for our conversations.  It is great then to see some truly mobilizing potential with these ubiquitous technologies.

  • Within hours of the Christchurch Earthquake google had worked with a number of organizations on a very effective missing persons interface Google Missing Person List.
  • Within days, Habitat for humanity had started a very easy to use website for both offering accommodation and finding help for places to stay at the Habitat Shelter Website.
  • A international group of volunteers called Crisescampnz has produced the beautifully designed massive collaboration site titled the Christchurch Recovery Map,
  • The Canterbury University Students Association showed the value of Student Unions with their fantastic Student Volunteer Army.

These are just four of the many responses to the Earthquake we’ve seen in the past week, they illustrate that these new technologies offer not only a speediness of set up and communication not previously possible, but also a radical repositioning of the role of the citizen.  These new technologies are becoming critical tools in what might as well be called the democracies we live in, and its a good reminder that democracy isn’t about voting every three years, its ability to engage with issues of governance as a free citizen.

Internationally we are seeing profound change in the middle east, and here too democratic forces and technology are meeting.  The global advocacy and activist group Avaaz has been enabling internet satellite into parts of Libya and Bahrain so that people there can keep up with important international news.  AVAAZ Satellite delivery. This fantastic sign from Egypt suggests we are seeing the growth of a global activist movement.  Egypt supporting America.

My last comment on the Christchurch earthquake is to realize the important work that has been going on in Nz for the past 50 years that has minimized the effects of last tuesday.  The force on buildings was TWICE what the building code asked for, so its impressive that so few collapsed.  In addition to this the rescue response sounds like it has been extraordinarily well co-ordinated given the desperate circumstances.  Brian Rudman of the Herald states

“as a small bunch of people, spread across a geologically challenged group of remote islands, we New Zealanders actually don’t do such a bad job of looking after ourselves.  Unknown to most of us, we do have structures on which to fall back in times of emergency – like Civil Defence, which had its origins after the Napier disaster and got a pat on the back from the head of the British urban rescue team, who said this was the best-organised rescue effort he’d attended, through which local communities have joined together to assist each other in moments of need.

So hats off to not just the men and women working on the ground, but to the 100’s of planner, bureaucrats and politicians who have prepared funds and expertise for disasters like this.  Here’s to long term planning, long may it continue.