Tag Archives: technology

Technology and Hope

This week I met with three engineers based at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration‘s Goddard Center. I’m always made more hopeful by young professionals who love their work, care about the neighborhood beyond their office gate, and are open to sharing with local children the kind of inspiration that motivated each of them to step onto the research paths that they’re on.

Are We Smarter than the Dinosaurs?

Two dinosaurs lounging. The one on the right: "All I'm saying is _now_ is the time to develop technology to deflect an asteroid."

(c) Frank Cotham, New Yorker | via B612 Foundation

One of these engineers introduced me to the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The mission is to corral an asteroid, bring it into the Moon’s orbit, and start studying it by 2025. Because of the distances involved, astronauts will need to leave Earth by about 2019.

This week, NASA invited other STEM institutes and members of the public to join in the grand challenge of identifying and monitoring asteroid threats to Earth. The more we know about asteroids near us, the more we can track them; the more we track them, the more we can assess risk and plan for redirection and mitigation.

As the B612 Foundation‘s Ed Lu writes: “Asteroid impacts are the only global scale natural disaster we know how to prevent.” Successful work on the ARM program will move us forward—and when there is an inbound asteroid on an Earth-collision course, we will know what to do with it.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson described the stakes back in March on the Daily Show: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3.

From the Archives

Also check out this news report from 1981: When the network news discovered the internet. For extra points: note the rotary phone and plug-in modem!

“Imagine, if you will, sitting down to your morning coffee, turning on your ‘home computer’ to read the day’s newspaper. Well it’s not as far-fetched as it may seem.”

Now imagine, if you will, how many assumptions you hold today that will soon prove false, and all the things you have no concept of now but will radically change the world you live in in the next 30 years.

Scary? Exciting? I’m excited.


HT: Jeanette Brantley for the B612 Foundation links.

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An End or a Metamorphosis?

Is our current collective path sustainable? Or is it not? If we did nothing different for the next 1,000 years, what would happen to us?

It is not inevitable that we should fail. —Terence McKenna

McKenna also asks: “Is there cause for optimism?” What do you think?

Encyclopedias and a Networked Universe

A few weeks ago over breakfast a friend of mine asked me how it was that I saw the world the way I do: what was it that taught me to see the world in a connected way? I’d never been asked that before and didn’t know what to tell him. Eventually, however, I realized that I became attuned to relationship in part through early exposure to encyclopedias.

Ángel Franco/The New York Times

(c) Ángel Franco/The New York Times

My mother sold encyclopedias during my school-age years, first the World Book series and later Encyclopædia Britannica. These were old-world leather-bound heavy heirloom sets that one displayed in one’s living room and passed down to one’s descendents. I loved that I could read articles on any topic whenever I wished. What I loved even more were the notes at the end of each article: See also and References. These sections connected me with new things to learn, and they challenged or validated what I’d already read. So I grew up immersed in the physical experience of leafing through these books. More importantly, I became acclimated to their logic.

The encyclopedia’s organizing logic is that data can be compiled; and, once compiled, information items can be related. Readers’ knowledge emerges as they link information in ways that make sense, that honor the integrity of each piece of information, and that help them to build a more expansive picture of the world around them and understand it more comprehensively.

The internet we have today amplifies the physical experiences I had with encyclopedias as a child. On the internet, information is networked via hypertext, links, and content tags. Generations of children who won’t grow up with huge physical sets of encyclopedias will grow up instead with this ethereal network as part of their daily, ordinary experience. There are millions around the world who haven’t yet experienced or the logic of symbolic relationships that the internet helps us adjust to: the digital divide is still a thing. But in time many of them will experience the Net, and on mobile phones rather than computers.

I think these technologies are just the latest tool Earth has evolved to help us learn how to see and build relationships among insights, ideas, communities, and people. What have you noticed in your own life? Have internet tools like Google Search, Bing, or Wikipedia changed how you engage and frame symbols, ideas, and experiences? If so, how? Have you ever thought about how two apparently disparate things might be connected? Like “milk” and “Margaret Thatcher”? Or “dragonfly” and “rocking chair”? What are the real-world See Also or Reference items that you rely on as touchstones to challenge or validate the new things you learn each day?

In your life before the internet, what systems for learning and connecting symbols, ideas, and experiences did you (and/or your community) have and use? In this post I emphasized an individual symbolic experience—but as social creatures we shape symbols and create meanings in community with others, not only by ourselves.

If you started a practice of looking for connections among two or three things each day for the next week, what new thoughts might you think? What might you discover?

From the cobwebbed archives of the web:

Battle Beyond the Millenium: the Internet Versus the Teacher Culture: Are You Ready to Rumble?

Texas Tech’s Fred Kemp explains why teachers need to lean into technology to support student-centered learning, not pull back fearing a loss of teacher authority. Kemp offered this talk to the Computers and Writing community in 1999 and showcased TTU’s computer-mediated freshman composition web app, TOPIC.

We teachers do not have the option of resisting or rejecting the Internet. You can turn your back on the tide, but that doesn’t stop the tide…

Our job is not to wow students with us or our brilliant subject matter, or to clone them into becoming, God forbid, English majors. Our job is to get them to figure out how to manage their lives productively through critical thinking, and for that we have to reduce our domination of the classroom, maybe even to the point of moving learning outside the classroom.

As one of his colleagues said when this was reposted this week, “This is probably the only thing ever written about the computing world that is as current today as the day it was delivered.”

Promise of the Internet

Re: Religion May Not Survive the Internet — Valerie Tarico returns with more End of Religion evangelism.

“Religions have spent eons honing defenses that keep outside information away from insiders. The innermost ring wall is a set of certainties and associated emotions like anxiety and disgust and righteous indignation that block curiosity. The outer wall is a set of behaviors aimed at insulating believers from contradictory evidence and from heretics who are potential transmitters of dangerous ideas.” — Valerie Tarico

I think the headlined conclusion is completely wrong: some folks thought the rise of writing and the printing press meant The End of All Good, too, yet here we are.

But Tarico may be right about some important details. The internet has already transformed several conservative denominations in the last 15 years, and changed them irrevocably. For example, a strong, open network of progressive Seventh-day Adventists has evolved out of isolated college and university towns into a global conversation. Even if small in relation to the international membership of its home denomination, the Spectrum and related progressive web forums are  influential because they provide information and discussion channels beyond the scope of authorized church publications and Saturday morning classes.

It’s not all light, however. While open and accessible, Spectrum and similar nontraditional channels are also characterized by thick discursive conflict: comment sections feature as much misapprehension and ad hominem detours as insight and open-hearted listening. These channels are also dominated by vocal minorities while the majority of users “lurk” or monitor sites without contributing content. As a Salon respondent writes: “Extremist minorities often drive the conversation because the moderate majority can’t muster enough interest to even engage.”

Complaints about deep social polarization on and off the internet often focus on various “rabid extremists” who (so the story goes) have hijacked the public sphere and who consistently destroy opportunities for mutual engagement and respectful dialogue. It’s easy enough to observe conversations that fit that bill: cable news thrives on stalemates among energetic opposing voices, and reality television is designed to create it.

The Salon comment points to something else just as important: where is the “moderate majority” on this landscape? Are we the passive audience that extremist drama plays for? As much as we might complain about the people running public conversations, do we actively participate ourselves? Of what value are our complaints about degraded public dialogue serve if we’re apathetic about direct, constructive involvement?

As we discussed this article, a friend pointed out to me that the internet has been a boon to many denominations: it supports increased and more symmetrical connection among members. Surely this is good if society at large tends toward disconnection and less engagement person-to-person and denominations have a norm of hierarchical relationships.

But I wonder if the communities for whom the internet has been a good thing are mostly non-traditional from their start: geographically distributed, experimental, intentionally dialogic, and with a strong sub-population of early adopters. For more mainstream congregations, the net has provided some benefits and proactive leaders have capitalized on them. A whole battery of communication channels are now available to churches because of the internet. Centralized PR offices can disseminate more information in more ways: websites, social media, email, list-servs, webcasts, live-streams, and forums. Despite this, there’s almost a species-sized difference between groups that use Twitter or Facebook mainly to host discussions or facilitate support, and groups that use the same media like a univocal billboard service. The latter are often wildly unprepared for the interactive internet and the unpredictable, uncontrollable people who use it and expect feedback from site owners.

So what now? I’m still waiting for some of the internet’s promise to manifest: we were told that the net would democratize relationships and the flow of information. In some ways it has. But in other corners especially those not filled with early adopters, openness, transparency, and cross-function collaboration are second-tier values and reluctantly pursued.

My sense is that the majority of people are still interfacing with the old world’s glacial institutions and that we’re creating at least two distinct realms of experience: one actively interconnected and the other persistently disconnected. If, regardless of our groups and cliques, we need curiosity about ideas and possibilities to grow, is this bifurcation of values the best future we can imagine?

Obit: Aaron Swartz

RSS co-developer Aaron Swartz has died aged 26yo.

Check out his writing on personal leadership and healthy organizations in the blog series Raw Nerve (available on his website until it’s not.)

Last May, Aaron talked to attendees of the Free to Connect conference in DC about his work coordinating resistance to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).*


* ht: @cmcknz77

New Tool-Toy and Tech Updates

Thanks to my brother: my latest tool-toy is IFTTT, a rules (recipe) site that allows users to cross-link their web-mediated services. One of the most common benefits is eliminating some of the content management work that users would otherwise duplicate across sites, work like uploading or archiving images, links, and posts.

How IFTTT Works

With each IFTTT recipe, you can identify a trigger or a starting condition that will prompt an action or consequence in a related service. For example, one of my recipes pushes select content from WordPress to another website I use. If all goes to plan, I’ll be able to focus my synchronous site use on interacting directly with people and reading their content rather than interacting, reading and broadcasting at the same time.

We’ll see if this works out: obviously I’ll be curating content somewhere so it’s just a question of where and how much. But see also Slate on “labor-saving devices” that haven’t saved us much labor. I’ll review this in 3 months to see whether IFTTT is bucking that steady trend for me and has proved itself worth keeping.

IFTTT and Twitter

My coming to IFTTT this late (it’s been live since 2010) means that other web-mediated services have already evolved in ways that diverge from IFTTT’s open cloud model. Twitter, for example, is no longer on IFTTT’s list of possible triggers. For users like me, this means that I can only treat Twitter as a content recipient; I can’t use it to broadcast to other services. It’s a nagging limitation and I’ll have to see whether my Twitter use changes in favor of other microblogging sites that do support both broadcasting and archiving.

The No Automatic Archive status quo for Twitter is also galling given that all public tweets automatically go to the Library of Congress. With an archived output of 130 terabytes and rising, all Twitter users are now published authors, but only a few of us can access the content we’ve authored. That being so, I don’t understand how a CNET editor can link Twitter with serious free-the-data companies when Twitter’s user archive is not yet accessible and users can’t export their information to other services.

News: Windows Live Messenger (1999-2013)

Apparently Microsoft is migrating all Windows Live Messenger users to Skype this spring. Not having used Messenger since the mid 00s myself, I’m surprised it still has such an active user base: just over a third of Skype’s base at about 100 million people worldwide. The web-communications arena has filled out a lot since Messenger’s launch, and I’m hoping that the influx of Live-level users isn’t going to be more disruptive than Microsoft’s acquisition of Skype was two years ago.