Archive for February 2010

Why can’t my iPhone tell my mood?

February 28th, 2010 — 11:55pm

Ever noticed how the more sophisticated a gadget is the sooner you get irritated by its limitations? When I first got my iPhone, about 2 years ago, I was overjoyed with it. I was amazed by all the new apps and services, by the slick internet browser, the instantly re-sizing pages, the pinch-to-zoom and butter-smooth scrolling.

But it didn’t take long before I started to get upset because it would occasionally drop a call, or block a number that belonged to one of my friends, or because it didn’t multi-task, or tracks would skip when I was simultaneously using Echofon to post to Twitter and listening to the built-in iPod. ‘Oh, Fuck off’, I cursed, stabbing the touchscreen and swiping back and forth, my patience exhausted.

Soon I was getting disappointed because my phone didn’t anticipate my every need, play soothing music when I got stressed, or comment on my choice of clothes with a flattering but insouciant: ‘I like that sweater. Is that new?’ Basically, I was expecting it to act like HAL 9000, but in a good way. My expectations of a mobile phone had gone from next to zero one minute to impossible to satisfy the next.

I think this frustration is caused, ironically, by the phone’s brilliance. You become so absurdly optimistic about the capabilities of technology that you soon start to forget that it’s just a load of wires on a silicon circuit board. You start to believe there really is some intelligent being in there, capable of delivering everything you want at the touch of a button or, even better, before you know you want it.

The better and more intuitive gadgets become, the harder it is to believe that there’s anything they can’t do. And the closer they come to the appearance of artificial intelligence, the more you start to treat them as if they had other human traits, as if they actually knew something about the world. The technology is a victim of its own success. It becomes so invisible that you forget it’s there, and then you forget how good it is and start blaming it for things that are totally beyond its control.

Come to think of it, maybe HAL was just pissed off because he wasn’t getting the credit he deserved. I mean, if I was that clever, and I knew it, and the human astronauts, the ‘legacy systems’, so to speak, started treating me like some kind of skivvy and lording it on my spaceship as if they owned the place I think I’d close the pod bay doors. Wouldn’t you?

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Cory Doctorow interview

February 28th, 2010 — 11:55pm

I hate listening to my own voice, recorded. It’s one of those horrible moments of cognitive dissonance when you realise that what is happening in your head is not the same as what’s happening in the real world. I sound like a posh twat. My voice is ponderous and heavy and I’m terrified that’s how people will think of me. I like to think of my voice as a mixture of four parts Richard Burton and two parts James Brown, mixed with just a twist of Dorothy Parker. But it’s a nasty shock to hear how you really do sound to everyone else.

Anyway, a little while ago I got to interview the great Cory Doctorow, novelist, blogger, copyfighter, for Resonance FM. This was a big thrill for me, as Cory is a bit of a legend in the Webby community. And he’s certainly the most eloquent advocate for a revised IP and copyright regime that I’ve ever read. Unfortunately, as you will soon be able to tell, I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare my questions, so I ramble a lot, but on the other hand that works out quite well because it just means that it’s mostly Cory talking, not me. We cover a very wide range of topics, from publishing, to DRM, to arts funding and more.

Entering Cory’s office in Clerkenwell is a bit like finding a secret room in a level of Quake or something; a secret room full to the brim with every single bit of sci-fi paraphernalia and every single sci-fi book and comic you can possibly imagine. It’s a cross between an Anchorite’s cell and Comic Book Man’s hidden basement. He’s probably got everything from the Strugatskys to a miniature replica of the Valley Forge. He’s even got one of those Steampunk keyboards that looks like a grand old typewriter. Cool. And his business card reads: ‘it’s BETTER on the moon’. This, I kept telling myself, is where Boing Boing happens.

The interview is split into 5 parts and they’re all available here:

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how to think about the future

February 28th, 2010 — 11:55pm

The reason I called this blog ‘how to think about the future’ is not because I can predict what will happen ten years from now. I’m not even particularly interested in trying to make accurate predictions. Lots of people who are much better qualified than I am have devoted their lives to doing that. And no matter how good their predictions are, there will always be some things that – as Keynes so pithily put it in his General Theory – ‘we simply don’t know’.

But what I am interested in is how we imagine the future, and how that helps us to shape it.

I’ve often found it difficult to see the relevance or practical application of new technologies and ideas when people have brought them to me, or failed to get instantly excited by new projects. But later, when I’ve had a chance to think more about it, or when a new idea has been successfully developed, the penny has dropped and I’ve begun to see its significance. And it is this delay, this occasional failure to grasp the excitement of new ideas, that got me thinking. The assumptions we rely on, about how the world works now, can prevent us from imagining a future in which those same rules don’t apply.

Some people seem to be more open to new possibilities and new ways of imagining the future than others. While some of us are still asking ‘but what does it all mean?’, and ‘how is this ever going to work?’, the true entrepreneurs and pioneers are already getting on with it. They don’t think of the future in terms of the present. They don’t simply try to extrapolate from the present into the future. That doesn’t work. Instead, what they ask themselves is: ‘how can the world be better?’ and then they just get on with it. They don’t think of the future as something that will arrive one day and take us all by surprise, they go out to meet it. They know that the only way to anticipate the future is to start to build it, now.

And so what I began to ask myself is, ‘why are some people able to think in that way? why are they so enthusiastic, so excited by new possibilities, and why are some of us still sitting on our thumbs asking: what’s the business model here?’

Is there a way in which the rest of us can learn to think differently, to embrace change and opportunity? The Web is changing everything. It is changing the world more and more rapidly, at a pace that is sometimes frightening to think about. And that change is making virtually anything possible.

Just look at the pace of innovation in clean energy technology, nanomaterials, medicine and surgery, news reporting, politics, communications, not to mention the storage, bandwidth and processing power that underlies all of this. We are inventing our way around problems on a global scale, faster than ever before. Of course new problems, or the same problems in a different guise, will trip us up again and again; that is what history is. But if there has ever been a period when more exciting possibilities suddenly opened up, when more people were suddenly empowered to start their own businesses, create their own artworks, and contribute their own ideas, I must have missed it.

So this blog is really about getting excited by what is happening now, what is possible now, and realising that the future is, literally, what we decide to make it. It is my attempt to celebrate the opportunities new technology is opening up and hopefully to inspire somebody to grasp them. As KR Sridhar, inventor of the Bloom Box, put it: ‘You know, it’s about seeing the world as what it can be, not what it is.’ Couldn’t put it better myself.

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February 28th, 2010 — 11:55pm

By 2007, Technorati was tracking over 122,000,000 blogs. The vast majority of these have no readers, or very, very few. So the question is, why start another one? Does the world really need another string of incoherent ramblings about life, the universe and everything? It’s a good question, but people don’t really write blogs because they want to reach a massive audience. If they do, they are kidding themselves. People start blogs for much the same reason they write diaries – for themselves.

In my case, I already have a personal blog, where I moan about the crushing unfairness of life. But I’ve started to write more and more recently about technology and the future of the Web, culture and society, and I decided that I needed a separate place to blog about these things, apart from what I had for lunch and which particular Hitler parody is my favourite at the moment.

‘Oh God…’, you are probably thinking, ‘not another wannabe intellectual who has discovered that the internet is a big deal. Spare us’. And yes, you are right to be sceptical. But, and it’s a big but, I think there are a lot of questions about the Web that are not being asked. At least, I still have a lot of questions. This blog is an attempt to ask some of those questions, and possibly even shed some light on them. Not much of it will be very scientific, or particularly well-informed, and there’ll be lots of strange diversions along the way, but hopefully some of it will be entertaining, and some of it might even be edifying.

Thanks for reading, please add your comments, post your own questions or ideas, or just tell me to shut up. Sometimes the kindest thing a friend can do is tell you when it’s time to stop.

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