Four Thought: The Coded World

19 December 2012

A few weeks ago I took part in a recording of Radio 4′s Four Thought. My episode of Four Thought will be broadcast on Radio 4 next Wednesday – the 26th December at 20:45pm. It’ll also be on iPlayer for the rest of the year, so if you don’t fancy interrupting Boxing Day for it, you can catch up later. I’ll probably link to it once it’s up on iPlayer.

What’s it about? It’s about technology education – from the “learning-to-code” meme that permeated 2012, through “computer science in schools”, and into what the real values of teaching technology are, and how you might go about that. Matt Jones’ post about a new age of STEAM was very timely, and suitably poetic; I’m only sad I didn’t talk a bit more about the value of the arts in my talk, though I hinted at it a bit.

So, if that sounds up your street, do tune in or catch up later.

  • "Popular media plays an important part in how technology is understood and how it is expected to be. Which, I would argue, also could mean that these understandings can be challenged through stirring popular imagination. And using media and communication as a tool." Einar's talk from Playful was a real favourite, and I'm glad he's put the whole thing online now. Completely worth a read.
  • 'Together with Caper I have also been working on a small art project for the RSC. We’ve been interested in working with the building itself… We wanted to explore the building as a whole, the total sum of effort and action that makes experiencing the performance possible; some of it behind the scenes. To do that, we wanted to put together an app that would analyse, visualise and display activity in the building as it happens." Lovely stuff from Natalia; this is another piece of work commissioned at the same time as the piece I'm doing for the RSC (more of which anon).
  • "The fascinating thing about the New Aesthetic could be that it was never new — it went from being unknown to being ubiquitous and thoroughly banal with barely a blink. The frisson of shock or wonder one experienced at seeing an aspect of the New Aesthetic out in the wild comes because that is the only time it will be noticed; afterwards it will pass unobserved. The New Aesthetic is not about seeing something new — it is about the new things we are not seeing. It is an effort to truly observe and note emergent digital visual phenomena before they become invisible." This is a really solid, careful piece from Will Wiles.
  • Valve really are incredible; just watching the UI and technology for this in action is a little jawdropping. (Also, one for my friends who work in After Effects/3D prototyping and video…)
  • "The real Grim Meathook Future, the one I talked about back when I wrote that thing and the one I see now, is the future where a relatively small slice of our species lives in a sort of Edenic Eloi reality where the only problems are what we laughingly refer to as White People Problems, like being able to get four bars’ worth of 4G signal at that incredible pho joint that @ironicguy69 recommended on Twitter, or finding new ways to lifehack all the shit we own into our massive closets…while the rest of the world is reduced to maintaining our lifestyles via a complex process of economically-positioned indentured servitude and clinging with the very tips of their fingernails onto the ragged edge of our consumer leavings, like the dorky dude who shows up the first day of school with the cheap K-Mart knockoffs of the pumped-up kicks the cool kids are wearing this year. In other words, the Grim Meathook Future is the one that looks like the present, the one where nothing changes."
  • "In my philosophy, Street Fighter is a game, but really it's a tool. It's like playing cards or chess or tennis: it's really about the people. Once you know the rules it's up to the players to put themselves in the game, to choose the nuance of how they play and express themselves. I think fighting games flourish because it was this social game. If it had been a purely single-player thing, it would never have grown so popular."
  • "Modern creatives who want to work in good faith will have to fully disengage from the older generation’s mythos of phantoms, and masterfully grasp the genuine nature of their own creative tools and platforms. Otherwise, they will lack comprehension and command of what they are doing and creating, and they will remain reduced to the freak-show position of most twentieth century tech art. That’s what is at stake." Loads of good stuff in this Sterling essay, but this is the leaper-out for me: the reminder – as I fervently behave – about truly understanding the things you work in. And in this case: the reminder that all the old metaphors of computation are rarely true. Computers are not intelligent; they do not see or hear. But nor are they stupid, blind, or deaf. They are just other.

Machines showing us mind; entertainment derived from the machine showing us non-mind

12 January 2012

Adam Gopnik’s “How The Internet Gets Inside Us“, in last year’s New Yorker, is a remarkable read. This leapt out:

…at any given moment, our most complicated machine will be taken as a model of human intelligence, and whatever media kids favor will be identified as the cause of our stupidity. When there were automatic looms, the mind was like an automatic loom; and, since young people in the loom period liked novels, it was the cheap novel that was degrading our minds. When there were telephone exchanges, the mind was like a telephone exchange, and, in the same period, since the nickelodeon reigned, moving pictures were making us dumb. When mainframe computers arrived and television was what kids liked, the mind was like a mainframe and television was the engine of our idiocy. Some machine is always showing us Mind; some entertainment derived from the machine is always showing us Non-Mind.

…but really, the whole thing is half an hour well spent.

  • "Software development is not pure coding, engineering, architecture, management, or design. It is cross-disciplinary. Better yet, it is its own discipline. It is more akin to making a movie than to building automobiles on an assembly line. The studio revolves around talent. Great software talent means renaissance developers who have passion, creativity, discipline, domain knowledge, and user empathy. These traits are backed by architecture, design, and by technical know-how that spans just knowing the technology flavor of the day. Process is the studio; it has structure but is flexible enough to optimize talent and tools." This post is as dogmatic as what it rails against, but it's good at finding flaws in dogma and then pushing towards a more sympathetic view. And this paragraph is the best bit.
  • "All operating systems know when they were born. Their internal clocks start counting then, so they can calculate the date and time in the future. It is unclear whether it was Mr Ritchie or Mr Thompson who set the so-called start Unix time at January 1st, 1970. That moment came to be known as the epoch. Mr Ritchie helped bring it about. And with it, he ushered in a new era." Which is as poetic a way as any of expressing how deeply rooted K&R are in the modern world.