Friday five: machines, meltdowns and malfunctions

Some of the best reads of the week:

When Success Leads to Failure – by Jessica Lahey, via The Atlantic

A searing indictment of the pressure to quantify and to compete at school.

“We taught Marianna that her potential is tied to her intellect, and that her intellect is more important than her character. We taught her to come home proudly bearing As, championship trophies, and college acceptances, and we inadvertently taught her that we don’t really care how she obtains them. We taught her to protect her academic and extracurricular perfection at all costs and that it’s better to quit when things get challenging rather than risk marring that perfect record. Above all else, we taught her to fear failure. That fear is what has destroyed her love of learning.”

The praise that we heap on good grades and the implication that our kids need to get them to be “successful” in the long run (and the not-so-long run) puts the label before the content and renders the opportunity irrelevant. I wrote about this a while ago, after coming back from the school “Prize Giving” in which 99% of the class are repeatedly told “you’re not the best, you don’t get our applause”. I worry about the constant comparing of grades and status, of the rankings based on spot evaluations, and of the lack of encouragement to go off the established curriculum to tread a new path. Schools in general are still stuck in a “follow the curriculum, learn the stuff in the textbooks and you’ll do well”. Where’s the innovation that us grown-ups say is necessary for success in the new economy?

“With a little luck, they will look back on their childhood and thank us; not just for our unwavering love, but for our willingness to put their long-term developmental and emotional needs before their short-term happiness. For our willingness to let their lives be just a little bit harder today so they will know how to face hardship tomorrow.”

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via Design Milk

via Design Milk

Yarn as a metaphor for music? Actually, it’s more like yarn “representing music in its physical form”. Probably something that needs to be experienced to be appreciated, but the idea is intriguing, and the installation – by architecture graduates Toluwalase Rufai and Khai Grubbs – is mesmerising. (Via Design Milk.)

via Design Milk

via Design Milk

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The Tinder meltdown – via Wired

Surely you’ve heard of the Tinder meltdown on Twitter, in reaction to an article in Vanity Fair that points out how callous and lacking in intimacy sex has become for the millennial generation. Priceless. Their tweets aren’t bad, their objections seem heart-felt, but the medium was wrong. Had they collated the tweets and posted them as an article on Medium, we would now be talking about what an emotional response, good for them. As it is, their reaction is being referred to as “losing it”. This version of the storm in Wired is a bit biased (pro-Vanity Fair, anti-tweetstorm), but very entertaining.

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Will machines eventually take on every job? – by Rachel Nuwer, for the BBC

Writer Rachel Nuwer talks about the impact of automation on the jobs of tomorrow. It’s not a new debate, but her clarification and her ideas are refreshing, especially when she points out that all this hand-wringing and doom-saying is not new.

“Machines have been taking our jobs for centuries. “Market economies are never sitting still,” says David Autor, a professor of economics at MIT. “Industries rise and fall, products and services change – and that’s been going on for a very long time.” “

Ms. Nuwer seems more practical than many I’ve read on the subject, pointing out that new technologies is not just about job destruction. New jobs are being created all the time, with potentially deeper meaning and satisfaction than most of those being replaced.

“Indeed, for all of the career doors technology shuts, there will also be a wave of new professional paths for people to create and explore. Just as some of today’s jobs – social media community manager, app designer, green funeral director – would have been impossible to imagine in 1995, we cannot definitively predict what new types of work will emerge in the future. But we can make educated guesses based on data and social trends. Sander envisions a future in which genetic counsellors, software debuggers, biobankers, augmented reality authors, anti-ageing specialists and urban natural disaster mitigation experts all occupy hot sectors of the economy. As more people move into cities, she also predicts jobs like urban farmers, anxiety counsellors, clutter consultants and even pet psychologists will become more favourable.”

Change is inevitable and not necessarily undesirable. The author points out that the transition is unlikely to be smooth, and that we need to come up with provisions and solutions for those who are displaced. Training will be very important, through a combination of courses, apprenticeships and corporate technology campuses. We also need to ask ourselves how we can better prepare the young for the jobs they’ll hold when they graduate.

Few doubt that the efficiency and productivity advances gained from the new technologies will lead to higher income overall. With a re-distribution of labour, and people learning new skills, finding more meaningful work and working fewer hours… Is that really so dystopian? Sure, it won’t be easy, and those especially resistant to change will probably experience loss and displacement. But change is inevitable, and it’s human nature to look for optimization of resources, especially that oh-so-precious one of time.

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stik-skyline (1)

Cities as platforms – by Gerard Grech, for TechCrunch

I overheard in a podcast the other day that cities were made up of “bricks, mortar and information”. While I would point out that glass and metal were also quite important – not to mention people – the phrase stuck with me, as the sheer amount of information gathered every second by sensors, cameras and other recorders is still nothing compared to the potential. As I wrote about last week, even just a city’s garbage cans can be important sources of data, which when correctly used, can improve not only the lives of the inhabitants of a city, but can also teach us much about human behaviour.

“With more people now living in cities than ever before in history, we are placing ceaseless demands on public transportation, housing and public spaces. Far from alluring sites of opportunity and cultural exploration, the cities we inhabit are becoming microcosms of the most extreme impacts of human activity.

To evolve, cities must be viewed as platforms, with populations encouraged to utilize technology to creatively disrupt and redefine core functionalities.”

The author proposes a “Digital Social Contract” in which we contribute our data to a city in exchange for efficiency and transparency. An interesting concept, that on first glance would benefit most (except perhaps those displaced by the move to greater efficiency).

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Welcome to 2015 where tech can make everything terrifying – by Alex Hern, for the Guardian

I’m a fan of Alex Hern: I read his articles, I enjoy his appearances on the Guardian Tech Podcast. And this article is, as usual, interesting, well-written and perceptive. Here’s is tongue-in-cheek take on software vulnerabilities:

“The human body has a long-running unpatched vulnerability which means that being hit by two tonnes of metal travelling at 35 miles per hour can cause a permanent loss of data.”

Yet Alex himself is being drawn into the media hype (of which he is a part) in assuming that sensationalistic danger-filled tech headlines represent the bulk of bad news:

“Vulnerabilities now occur less because of what an individual does, like giving away bank details to a phishing email, and more because of a failure in the services we rely on. Spotting where the weaknesses will occur is impossible.”

This is like complaining that it’s difficult to expect the unexpected. Stuff happens. Machines go crazy. Things break. But bottom line, most tech errors are human-based. Service failures will happen, they always have (hands up who hasn’t suffered from cancelled flighs or trains). Alex’s solution to this vulnerability is to propose that we depend less on the technology, as if that would make us less vulnerable.

“Face it: software sucks and so there will always be vulnerabilities for hackers, and we have to live with that. As a result, maybe it’s worth dialling back our reliance on it just a little bit, so the next time you’re complaining about something crashing for some unfathomable reason, you can console yourself that it’s your computer – and not your car.”

Easier said than done. As with science (of which software and technology are an extension), if it can happen, it will happen.

Just because we don’t get it right the first time doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep on working at getting it right. Of course we will always be vulnerable: we always have been. And just because software isn’t impregnable, doesn’t mean it sucks. Still, an excellent article that does us the valuable service of pointing out that the civilization-reforming technological advances are to be handled with caution.

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Have a GREAT weekend, everyone. There’s not much of the summer left, it’s important to enjoy it. I leave you with one of the silliest and most adorable websites ever:



Seriously, click on the link. And relish how clean your screen will be.

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