The Limits of Technology

As part of my home entertainment during lock-down, I have been enjoying a series of Web TV programmes called This Is Imminent hosted by Simon Waller, and whose broad theme asks “how are we learning to live with new technology?” – in short, the good, the bad and the ugly of AI, robotics, computers, productivity tools etc.

Niska robots are designed to serve ice cream…. image sourced from Weekend Notes

Despite the challenges of Zoom overload, choked internet capacity, and constant screen-time, the lock-down has shown how reliant we are upon tech for communications, e-commerce, streaming services and working from home. Without them, many of us would not have been able to cope with the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

The value of Simon’s interactive webinars is two-fold – as the audience, we get to hear from experts in their respective fields, and gain exposure to new ideas; and we have the opportunity to explore ways in which technology impacts our own lives and experience – and in a totally non-judgmental way. What’s particularly interesting is the non-binary nature of the discussion. It’s not “this tech good, that tech bad”, nor is it about taking absolute positions – it thrives in the margins and in the grey areas, where we are uncertain, unsure, or just undecided.

In parallel with these programmes, I have been reading a number of novels that discuss different aspects of AI. These books seem to be both enamoured with, and in awe of, the potential of AI – William Gibson’s “Agency”, Ian McEwan’s “Machines Like Me”, and Jeanette Winterson’s “Frankissstein” – although they take quite different approaches to the pros and cons of the subject and the technology itself. (When added to my recent reading list of Jonathan Coe’s “Middle England” and John Lanchester’s “The Wall”, you can see what fun and games I’m having during lock-down….)

What this viewing and reading suggests to me is that we quickly run into the limitations of any new technology. Either it never delivers what it promises, or we become bored with it. We over-invest and place too much hope in it, then take it for granted (or worse, come to resent it). What the above novelists identify is our inability to trust ourselves when confronted with the opportunity for human advancement. Largely because the same leaps in technology also induce existential angst or challenge our very existence itself – not least because they are highly disruptive as well as innovative.

On the other hand, despite a general shift towards open source protocols and platforms, we still see age-old format wars whenever any new tech comes along. For example, this means most apps lack interoperability, tying us into rigid and vertically integrated ecosystems. The plethora of apps launched for mobile devices can mean premature obsolescence (built-in or otherwise), as developers can’t be bothered to maintain and upgrade them (or the app stores focus on the more popular products, and gradually weed out anything that doesn’t fit their distribution model or operating system). Worse, newer apps are not retrofitted to run on older platforms, or older software programs and content suffer digital decay and degradation. (Developers will also tell you about tech debt – the eventual higher costs of upgrading products that were built using “quick and cheap” short-term solutions, rather than taking a longer-term perspective.)

Consequently, new technology tends to over-engineer a solution, or create niche, hard-coded products (robots serving ice cream?). In the former, it can make existing tasks even harder; in the latter, it can create tech dead ends and generate waste. Rather than aiming for giant leaps forward within narrow applications, perhaps we need more modular and accretive solutions that are adaptable, interchangeable, easier to maintain, and cheaper to upgrade.

Next week: Distractions during Lock-down

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life During Lock-down

As I write, Victoria is witnessing record numbers of new COVID-19 cases in the so-called second wave of the pandemic. Even as the State Government maintains the Stage 3 lock-down in Greater Melbourne (and most recently mandated the wearing of masks), some members of the public are trying to challenge these restrictions, while others have to keep being reminded to comply with the pandemic measures. Frankly, the way I have been feeling about the latest events, I don’t know whether to laugh, scream or cry.

The Village of Eyam – Image sourced from National Geographic

Laugh, because I can’t believe how crass or stupid some of these refuseniks are. Scream, because I am so angry at the State Government’s failure to properly manage the hotel quarantine programme (which has led to the widespread community transmission), and the delayed decision to require masks in public. Cry, because the whole situation is incredibly sad, given all the people who have lost loved ones to the virus, and the many more who are experiencing financial hardship.

The Premier keeps saying that now is not the time to debate the whys and wherefores of who is responsible for the failure in hotel security arrangements, what caused the community transmission, or why so many people continued with their normal routines despite being symptomatic or while waiting for coronavirus test results. OK, fair enough – the Government’s main focus is on protecting public health (and shoring up the local economy), but hopefully there will be plenty of time for analysis and debate once the virus is under control (and hopefully well before the next State election, due in 2022…).

Meanwhile, I don’t know why politicians and health administrators are so surprised when members of the public fail to “exercise common sense”. Maybe the public kept hearing the Government was doing a such a great job (hey, remember Lock-down Pt. I?). Perhaps they over-compensated after a few weeks’ social distancing, became complacent and let down their guard. Or maybe they took their lead from public messages about “returning to normal” – and going to the footy and getting on the beers again….. Perhaps there is a sizeable portion of the community who can’t be trusted “to do the right thing” (or maybe they just don’t trust politicians, public servants, health experts or mainstream media).

As for why those people carried on as usual (despite being symptomatic or awaiting test results): there may be economic factors at play (to be discussed another day, but if that doesn’t include a debate on a Universal Basic Income, it will be a lost opportunity). It could be a lack of information and awareness. It could simply be human nature. But for a culture that celebrates “chucking a sickie” (indeed, one former Prime Minister even suggested it would be a point of national pride to do so following Australia’s success in the Americas Cup), something has gone wrong somewhere if people don’t feel any responsibility or obligation towards the health of their fellow citizens.

In my more existentialist moments (and I seem to have so much more time for that these days…), I can’t help thinking the pandemic is a three-fold challenge to the future of the human race: 1) the virus is nature’s way of inoculating itself against homo sapiens; 2) it will prove Darwin’s theory of evolution (survival of the fittest) by exploiting our weakness as social creatures – it’s figured out how to get us to spread the virus on its behalf; 3) the reduced levels of human activity and pollution will give the earth some time to heal (at least for a while).

At other times, I think about Talking Heads’ song “Life During Wartime”* – especially the line “I got some groceries, some peanut butter to last a couple of days”. With the need to limit shopping trips, the various shortages, and the focus on being prepared for a total lock-down, is it any wonder we may feel some anxiety? Of course, we could be in a far worse situation than what we are currently experiencing in Melbourne, both in terms of the number of cases and the breakdown in social order we see elsewhere. Yet that just underscores how inconsiderate and selfish those people are who can’t bring themselves to wear masks, or observe Stage 3 restrictions. Yes, the restrictions are inconvenient, and at times tedious, but they are hardly onerous compared to a full scale health crisis. And if anyone wants to discuss public sacrifice in the face of a virulent disease, I suggest they do some research on the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, England.

For myself, I know I have been very fortunate so far (probably thanks to some “compound privilege”). I have been able to work from home since March (although as an independent contractor, my monthly income has been reduced), but I have not seen any friends or family face-to-face either, and I won’t be traveling overseas next month for a family wedding, or to visit elderly parents. I am able to walk each day in the nearby park, but apart from food shops and the post office, I’ve not been inside any other retail premises. I haven’t been to pubs or restaurants, but I try to support the local hospitality sector by ordering prepare-at-home meals about once a week. I can’t get to see live music, but this has forced me to revisit my own music-making. And I don’t have to do any home-schooling, but I have friends and relatives who work in the health and education sectors.

My biggest concern, apart from the pandemic itself, is that we miss the opportunity to re-think the large areas of the economy that need restructuring. Politicians keep talking about “jobs, jobs, jobs”, as if the archaic labour structures inherent in the traditional master and servant relationship is the be-all and end-all of social economics. But where are these jobs coming from? COVID19 shows we can consume less, make do with less stuff, and so it can’t just be a demand-led stimulus. Nor should it just be a construction-led recovery (more “Big Build”), unless it is combined with innovation, sustainability, hi-tech, smart cities, etc. There is definitely a need to think about national self-sufficiency, and figure out what to do about supply chains, manufacturing and renewable energy.

Somehow, we have to turn this uncertainty and these challenges into positive outcomes.

Next week: The Limits of Technology

* The whole album, “Fear of Music” is the perfect soundtrack for the nervous paranoia and unease of the pandemic…..

Music during lock-down

Large parts of Melbourne are again under lock-down during Covid-19. I find myself taking even greater comfort in music during the prolonged period of working from home.

This is a personal selection of music that has accompanied the lock-down over the past four months:

1. “Sleep” by Max Richter – if you can’t take the full 8 hours, the 1 hour version “From Sleep” is a perfect way to end the day – music to fall asleep to

2. “The Piano Sings” by Michael Nyman – very personal interpretations of some of his best-known film scores, and as used evocatively throughout “The Trip” series of films (and not to be confused with Nyman’s soundtrack to “The Piano”)

3. “Playing the Piano for the Isolated” by Ryuichi Sakamoto – a specially-recorded live performance for these unsettling times – I’ve also been listening to his recent collaboration with Alva Noto, “Two (Live At Sydney Opera House)”, and Alva Noto’s minimalist interpretation of The Cure’s “A Forest”

4. “Erratics & Unconformities” by Craven Faults – long-form ambient and hypnotic analogue synthesiser compositions that embody the Pennine landscape (which I probably won’t get to see again for some time)

5. The “Selbstportrait” series of albums by Hans-Joachim Roedelius – reflective collections that act like musical diaries

6. “Music for Installations” by Brian Eno – what better soundtrack for lock-down than a series of works created for interior settings…

7. “In A Slient Way” by Miles Davis – nowhere near as famous as “Kind of Blue” or “Bitches Brew”, but just as ground-breaking as a transitional album in the Davis’ catalogue (and a contender for earliest ambient album before the term existed)

8. “New Energy” by Four Tet – for a downtempo/chill-out album, this is incredibly uplifting and joyous – in fact, any of his recent releases are worth investigating

9. “Five Years in The Dark” by Pye Corner Audio – hopefully, we won’t be five years in lock-down…

10. “Live at Empty Bottle/Chicago” by Fennesz – highly abstract but totally absorbing live performance revealing complex harmonics and sublime electronic textures

Next week: Open Banking and the Consumer Data Right

The lighter side of #Rona19

After several weeks of lockdown during #Rona19, and despite the serious challenges that we still face from the Pandemic and its consequences, it’s typical of the human condition and our spirit of resilience that people have managed to find humour and goodwill in the depths of despair.

In no particular order (and without any judgement) here are just some of the distractions and interactions that have been keeping us amused during social isolation, as well as a few of the apparent positive effects:

  • The video conference call bloopers (memo to team: pants on)
  • Clips of dogs vs cats navigating home-made obstacle courses
  • #MeAt20 flashbacks
  • Elderly family members accidentally gatecrashing Houseparty online drinks
  • Some introvert pupils actually enjoying schooling from home
  • Clients and suppliers displaying genuine concern for each others’ welfare in e-mails and on calls (I just hope this empathy endures beyond the Pandemic)
  • People reducing food waste (less shopping, less fussy about use-by dates)
  • Homemade videos and photos recreating scenes from famous movies and artwork 
  • More wildlife in urban areas (I’ve also seen more birds, bugs, bees, butterflies and beetles in my back yard and in nearby parks)
  • Public libraries of iconic images for use as video call backdrops (conference calls will never be dull again…)
  • An apparent drop in traditional crime rates, and fewer typical hospital casualties (people not going out getting drunk, getting into fights or overdosing)
  • Hosting virtual dinner parties (no need to organise a taxi home)
  • Many homes now have a “clearance corner” awaiting charity shops reopening (all that time to sort out cupboards and drawers)
  • A visible reduction in air pollution (as evidenced by before/after photos from various cities)

Next week: Startupbootcamp’s Virtual Demo Day