Saturday, July 16, 2005

Ah, The Joy of Consumption

While purchasing a hand-held digital recorder for lectures, interviews and notes I went through a dialectical process. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines dialectic as, "the existence or working of opposing forces, tendencies." A salient example of this is from Galbraith's The Affluent Society, "As a society becomes increasingly affluent, wants are increasingly created by the process by which they are satisfied." Satisfy needs, create needs. Which is it? Answer: both. This is particularly true of buying consumer goods.

I thought I had found the perfect technology. I went through a process of weighing options, finding the best price and considering my needs for the product. Then, once I received the product I learned that I could not transfer the sound files to my computer. That feature was on a model that cost 45 dollars more. Much like having a digital camera where the images can only be viewed using the camera, I felt stuck. My consonance or satisfaction over the purchase turned to dissonance. This launched me into another dialectical process of revising my old knowledge in light of my new knowledge.

Some of the questions I asked: Would I want to save the files to my machine so they could be accessed in the future? Would I want to email them to people? Would having this ability just make me lazy; more likely to transfer the files to my machine and never review them? Could I justify the $45 given things were financially tight? Does the anticipated amount of use justify the extra cost?

After wading through conflicting options and arguments for trading in the model or keeping it I decided to return the recorder for the more expensive one. This decision came about after talking through the pros and cons with my uncle. It helps to get objective about these things by bouncing them off someone who can help you consider things that may have slipped your notice. After a purchase we often have a confirmation either way that we made the right decision. After getting the recorder I saw why the extra feature was $45 more and the ability to save the files more than justified the extra money spent.

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Friday, July 01, 2005

Poem Online - Black Widow Eggs

This is slightly off-topic for this site, but I figured I'd provide a link for those interested in poetry. It's a poem I just had published online about the time surrounding my grandfather's death.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Tech Support, Supporting Tech

Hello...Last night the LCD screen on my laptop started to look like Kilimanjaro in winter, turning fuzzy with dancing snow, so I called technical support. Tech support calls mirror the paradigm of business relationships. Things are kept on topic and “blips of personality” are kept to a minimum. This removal of elements of uniqueness keeps things moving efficiently. Business sticks to the business at hand and technical support sticks to the issues needing to be resolved. As I began to ask the gentlemen about his own computer and see the human behind the tech support I started to discover an interesting person. This small-talk made him more comfortable and gave a feeling of connection to a job that must be full of, no pun intended, cold calls. I wondered if the “reducing humans to the service they provide” attitude was reinforced by out approach to technology? And, if we infused our relations with our tools with a bit of humanity, even though it won’t be reciprocated in human terms, would it produce a beneficial change?

Have you ever known anyone who names their cars? A family member that repairs industrial machinery named the welding machines at work. When he did this the guys in the field took a sense of ownership of the machines and treated them better. The result was less breakdowns due to misuse and quicker notification when “Mary” wasn’t working right. Technology, when working properly, provides a service. It doesn’t have a human personality, so we don’t often go beyond the silicon, plastic and wires. We fail to recognize that interfacing with technology is interfacing with the human behind the tool. When looked at this way the tool is not something to use and dispose, as it is itself an embodiment of accumulated experience and intelligence. Perhaps this tweaking of our perspective, even in an era of highly standardized and manufactured goods, is what we need to shift from “use and dispose” to “engage and care.”

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Too Late to Go Back to Sleep: Industrial Ecology

Hello...It turned rainy today, a terrorist cell was discovered in Lodi (a few miles away), and I just embarrassed myself by sending an email to the wrong person. Perhaps I should have stayed in bed today...never mind, then I wouldn't have been able to touch the life of someone special or inform you that the Journal of Industrial Ecology (JIE) has posted a whole issue online that is free to download. The issue focuses on consumption and tackles several topics: sustainability, economics and ecology.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Bad in Everything Good

Hello...Just thought I'd post a link to a comment I posted on Steven Johnson's website. If you scroll down my comment begins with..."I concur with Christopher Ball's critique." Steven wrote How Everything Bad is Good for You. It's about how technology and popular culture are not dumbing us down but making us smarter. I saw him lecture about the book at Cody's in Berkeley. I've processed his thesis and the thoughts I posted represent my overall impression. His book has really generated a lot of talk and dialogue, so I think it has been healthy in that regard. He's also a great author in terms of making complex ideas understandable. I have learned a lot about how to be a successful non-fiction author from reading his work.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Turning Off the Michael Jackson Trial

Something dawned on me and I thought I'd work through it. It's in reference to the idea that people are lazy and many people don't want to better the world, improve their well-being or the well-being of those around them. As a current example, and in reference to technology, I'm struck by the amount of hours people have spent watching the Michael Jackson trial. There's the incessant media updates and there's a whole channel where actors act out the full courtroom transcripts from the day. Have you seen that show? The actor for Michael even looks like him.

On the positive side, people are learning about the judicial process. People are learning about how arguments are presented, how evidence is used, how witnesses are questioned. This is good. They're also learning the twisted mind and habits of the king of pop. Not sure if that's good or bad? Watching the trial also has the positive social value of being able to provide input and insight when the trial is raised in conversation. Many people get wrapped up in the drama of the trial in much the same way people get wrapped up in soap operas. Not that law and soaps are in the same league, but certain viewers derive entertainment value from following the unfolding of both.

My intuition is that if you asked these people what they would really like to be doing with their time (within reason) it would not be watching the Michael Jackson trial and even if it was it would probably not be to the extent that they do watch it. What I'm talking about is not a casual observer or someone who gets daily updates. I'm talking about people who have dedicated significant chunks of their life to following this trial. If pressed further, about why they're not reading, exercising, connecting with friends or family, painting, watching the sunset and so on, the questioning will probably veer toward fears and insecurities. That is, they're afraid to do the self-generated activities not so much because they're lazy or they don't want to be productive and contribute to their well-being and the well-being of the world but TV provides an "easy out" for them not having to confront their fears. Then, through incessant TV watching, they develop patterns that paralyze movement toward overcoming those fears at all. It's much easier to stay within the comfortable, warm bubble of watching TV. So, in this case, information is key. Not every single person is going to want to better their well-being, many are just plain lazy or apathetic, but a significant portion of those people who appear lazy don't know that their trapped. They don't see how they've allowed themselves to become seduced by the illusion of engaged experience TV promotes. They're distracted from their life-purpose and they don't know it. This is why such a situation leads to excess--the lack of awareness and no one has thrown them a rope (provided a clear analysis) and shown them the way out of the black tunnel-vision of the tube. So, they continue living myopic, reduced lives. Not risking much, not gaining much.

To finish this thought, I’m not saying that TV is bad or TV watching is bad. As I mentioned earlier there are many benefits to TV, even to watching the MJ trial. Part of what I’m saying is that all things in excess increase the experience of the negative aspects. TV just happens to be a more engulfing escape than many other mediums. The computer and the internet is another. But, beyond moderation while using technology lies the content of the programming.

Is thinking about Michael Jackson getting friendly with little boys a good thing? Is thinking about pedophilia a good thing? Socially, one can only hope it spreads awareness of such devastating behavior. But on a personal level how does viewing that content, especially in excess, affect the way you view the world? Does it make you more fearful of a man showing affection to a child? Does it make you think twice when you see a father being affectionate with his son? Does it warp or skew your perception of the magnitude of the problem? In other words, what does it do to your mental, physical and social well-being?

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Emerging from Obscurity: Reversing Ethics

Hello...I just received notification of acceptance of a paper I submitted to the Machine Ethics conference. I’m exited to present the paper and get feedback. The mission of the Machine Ethics movement is to reverse the way ethics is approached with regard to technology. Typically, ethical questions focus around how humans shape technology. So, topics consist of the ethical use of technology (e.g. privacy, hacking). In the conference, and in this paper, it is asked, “how can we place ethics into a machine?” This is important because major technological corporations are in a race to push into the home a robot capable of acting as a domestic assistant. The ethical implications will spike as robots become capable of house cleaning, cooking and baby sitting. As a result, we need to counter this increase in interactivity, power and pervasiveness with an increased ability to be more responsible, more ethical.