Active furniture and the Internet of Things

Very cool, very strange, very hypnotic and potentially practical. How do you add motion to a table? How can you send messages using furniture? How can you actively interact with hard surfaces?

Transform, a project of the MIT Media Lab, blends technology and design to turn a solid, static object into a dynamic, active participant. Surprising, a bit noisy, and quite mind-blowing… Is it just me, or does it also bring to your mind the concept of furniture as a pet?


Friday five: dictatorship, curation and trees that email

The dictatorship of edtech – via HackEducation

The inimitable Audrey Watters takes us on an alarming tour of the current ed-tech scene, the role of centralized administration of the programs, and the insidiousness of computers in classrooms. And you thought they were there to help…

“And so I think it’s time now to recognize that if we want education that is more just and more equitable and more sustainable, that we need to get the ideologies that are hardwired into computers out of the classroom.”

So, the computers aren’t the problem? (Whew…) Right, it’s the network.

“No longer was it up to the individual teacher to have a computer in her classroom. It was up to the district, the Central Office, IT. The sorts of hardware and software that was purchased had to meet those needs – the needs and the desire of the administration, not the needs and the desires of innovative educators, and certainly not the needs and desires of students.”

True, you hear so many teachers complaining about rules imposed by administrators who don’t understand teaching. It’s always been that way, though, right? Was the textbook era any better?

Audrey’s argument has reason, and her prose is powerful. But, she overlooks the alternative. She urges that we “stop this ed-tech machine”, and while part of me shouts “yes! Administration doesn’t understand!”, the part of me that has seen technologies strive to become mainstream in spite of massive resistance based on fear and mistrust of anything new, needs to point out that of course we’re not going to get it right the first time. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep on trying. Technology is not being used effectively, on the whole, in the classroom. But not having it there would do more harm than good. Central control does defeat the purpose of personalization. But regulation of some sort helps with the trust issues, and can protect.

“Google is at the heart of two things that computer-using educators should care deeply and think much more critically about: the collection of massive amounts of our personal data and the control over our access to knowledge.

Neither of these are neutral. Again, these are driven by ideology and by algorithms.”

Yes, we need to understand algorithms better. But, any access is better than no access, and a completely user-defined information access sounds unfortunately, for now anyway, too good to be true. In traditional libraries, who decided what books the library would carry?

“You’ll hear the ed-tech industry gleefully call this “personalization.” More data collection and analysis, they contend, will mean that the software bends to the student. To the contrary, as Seymour pointed out long ago, instead we find the computer programming the child. If we do not unpack the ideology, if the algorithms are all black-boxed, then “personalization” will be discriminatory.”

What I love about this article is that Audrey makes us stop and think. Maybe, in fact probably, we’ll push on with our iPads and online curriculums regardless. But hopefully we are more aware that this is not the utopia we were expecting. More fool us for expecting it.

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They look like seagulls perching on the rocks. Surveillance as art?

(by Jakub Geltner, via Colosssal)

(by Jakub Geltner, via Colossal)

By the artist Jakub Geltner, via Colossal.

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Whatsapp as a news service, via NiemanLab

This is one of those brilliant, slap-on-the-head, “why didn’t I think of that” ideas: WhatsApp as a news service. Now part of the Facebook stable, WhatsApp knows what we’re interested in. Asking us to opt in to the service shouldn’t be too big of a hurdle. And we can then get breaking news without having to even unlock our phone.

whatsapp news

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The photos from the National Geographic Traveller Photo Contest 2015 are jaw-droppingly stunning. If you have some time this weekend, take a look, and prepare to be amazed.

(by Sandra Boles, taken in Ethiopia)

(by Sandra Boles, taken in Ethiopia)

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What does Twitter want to be? via TechCrunch

“Twitter will either die or fully realize its potential as a massive media empire, it doesn’t have other options.”

Just when you thought you understood a service, they go and talk about changing it completely. Lucas Matney explains why Twitter should leverage what they know about our interests (every retweet and favourite is data) to feed us curated information.

“With how Apple is able to put its finger on the pulse of music taste based on a few follows, Twitter should be able to balance my hundreds of connections with global topics and and give me an appealing list of trending topics specific to me…  I want Twitter to adapt to my cultural obsessions. To do this, Twitter is going to have to forego relying on editor-curated content for this purpose and strengthen their content recommendation engines.”

As much as I like Twitter now, I like Lucas’ version even more. Less skimming and scrolling needed. More tapping, more trust.

“Following Apple Music’s models of curated and recommended content could be a key for Twitter’s future success. With it Twitter might be able to soar to new heights and become a truly revolutionary media company.

Or, who knows, maybe Apple could just buy Twitter.”

Bottom line, don’t get comfortable.

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When you give a tree an email address… via The Atlantic

In this wonderful article that starts out surreal (trees with email addresses?) and ends up profound (our relationship with our environment), Adrienne LaFrance points out that technology is enhancing our awareness of our surroundings, and our emotional investment in our neighbourhood.

“Modern tools for communicating, publishing, and networking aren’t just for connecting to other humans, but end up establishing relationships between people and anthropomorphized non-human objects, too.”

The city of Melbourne, Australia assigned emails to the city’s trees as part of a program to make it easier to report problems like broken branches. They found that people started using these emails to communicate with the trees. Sometimes the trees would receive emails from other trees:

tree email

Sometimes the trees would write back:

tree email 2

tree email 3

“The move toward the Internet of Things only encourages the sense that our objects are not actually just things but acquaintances.”

I do, actually, feel very close to my Nespresso machine. I think an open line of communication would deepen our relationship. And be entertaining.

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I’m guessing that you didn’t know that today was National Piña Colada Day (what??? where have you been?). Well, it is, and here’s a refreshing image to start the weekend off properly.

(image via Metro)

(image via Metro)

The Internet and the World Wide Web are not the same thing. Please take note.

I’m not one to complain. Really. Well, hardly ever. But here goes: I’ve always been a fan of the magazine Time, but it’s going downhill so fast in terms of quality of reporting and design (its new web is so much harder to navigate than its old one) that I’m even thinking of cancelling the subscription that I have held for about 12 years… There, I got that off my chest, and it wasn’t too painful.

The cause of the most recent slump in my esteem for the publication is from an article back in December claiming that Sir Tim Berners-Lee is the inventor of the Internet. He’s not. He’s a brilliant man, who gave the Internet a usability and accessibility that powers the unimaginable amount of traffic that flows across it daily. But, I’m pretty sure that you got to this blog not through the Internet as such, but through the World Wide Web. And that, Sir Tim Berners-Lee did invent (along with several colleagues, as he would be the first to tell you).

click on image to go to the article at - image taken 22/1/15

click on image to go to the article at – image taken 22/1/15

See, here’s the thing: the Internet and the World Wide Web are not the same thing. And for a magazine of the reputation of Time to think they are, is worrying. Maybe the article was written by an intern – but shouldn’t the tech editors pick up on that? And the thing is, it probably underlies a misconception that is much more extended than I realized.

Even such a brilliant thinker as Nicholas Carr seems to get the two terms confused. His book “The Shallows” (definitely worth reading, even if you don’t agree with everything he claims – he does provoke serious contemplation) carries the subtitle: “How the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember” (or “What the Internet is doing to our brains”, if you have the American version). The main theme of the book is that the overload of information that the Internet gives us is hindering our brain’s ability to think deeply, and to absorb long-form content such as, you know, books. Like the ones he writes.

Some sample quotes:

“The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it.”

“On the Web, there is no such thing as leisurely browsing. We want to gather as much information as quickly as our eyes and fingers can move.”

“And so we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us, in ever more and different ways.”

“The Web… places more pressure on our working memory, not only diverting resources form our higher reasoning faculties but obstructing the consolidation of long-term memories and the development of schemas. The calculator, a powerful but highly specialized tool, turned out to be an aid to memory. The Web is a technology of forgetfulness.”

He appears to use the two terms interchangeably. And, whether you agree with him or not (I don’t), blaming the Internet for our misuse of the information overload is like blaming the oven in which we bake our cookies, for making us fat. It’s really not the Internet that distracts us. It’s what’s using it. What’s using it is the World Wide Web.

Let’s look at the differences between the two concepts, and settle this once and for all.

Imagine a book. A paper book, not an e-book. The paper, the cover and the binding, that’s the Internet. The print on the paper and the cover, that’s the World Wide Web.

The Internet is the hardware. The World Wide Web is the software.

The Internet is a network of computers, linked by cables or by beamed waves. The World Wide Web is a way of exchanging information.

Web pages, hyperlinks and browsers, that’s the World Wide Web. Your fibre optic cable, wifi modem or whatever it is that gets you connected, that’s the Internet.

The Web cannot exist without the Internet, but the Internet can exist without the Web. The World Wide Web runs on the Internet. It depends on the Internet. But the Internet does not need the World Wide Web. Other stuff is done on the Internet that does not involve the World Wide Web, such as emailing. The original Internet forums did not need the World Wide Web, they used Usenet, a different protocol. It’s still in use today, mainly for internal message boards and discussion groups. And the Internet uses the FTP protocol to directly transfer information between computers. If you’ve ever uploaded something to a server using Filezilla or something similar, you’re not passing through the World Wide Web. You are using the Internet, though.

If you can’t access any Web pages, it’s probably a problem with your Internet connection. Not your Web connection. You can’t say “the Web is down”, or “the Web crashed”, like you can with the Internet. It’s a bit like saying “the cake crashed” when it’s really your oven that won’t turn on.

The first Web page, programmed and uploaded by Tim Berners-Lee

The first Web page, programmed and uploaded by Tim Berners-Lee

Right, enough geekiness for one day. Is the difference even important, I hear you ask? Yes, it is. Because how we see something affects very much the uses that we can come up with. If we understand that the Internet is separate, distinct, not the same thing, then we can start to imagine what else we can do with it. The World Wide Web is but one way of spreading information via the Internet. It’s convenient, flexible, colourful and fun, and it is definitely the flavour of the 21st century so far. But with the development and rollout of the Internet of Things, which is gearing up to be massive, data is increasingly being transferred via other protocols. And as the Internet of Things – in which data is beamed from one object to another (sensors, blood pressure bands that wirelessly beam information to your doctor’s smartphone, toasters connected to the TV…) – takes off, we will need a new form of connectivity. This is already happening. In no way will it replace the World Wide Web (and there will be some overlap as some IoT information is communicated to us humans via Web pages). It can run parallel, using the Internet, without which neither would be possible.

Separating our notions of the Internet and the World Wide Web is very important if we are going to create the knowledge economy that will continue to propel civilization to new technological heights. Separating them is also important if we are going to continue to innovate in the distribution of information and ideas. Who knows where else we could take the Internet? Who knows what else it could end up doing for us? What if the hyper-connected society that we live in, thanks to the World Wide Web and the IoT ecosystem, is just the beginning?