Our tools shape us April 12, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Marshall McLuhan once said that, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” The basic idea expressed here is that technology does not merely help its users to alter the world to their liking, but it can also change the users themselves in the process. (Perhaps he was following Winston Churchill who remarked, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”) In short, technology is more than just a tool.
An interesting little piece from New Scientist provides an illustration of this observation. In 2010, an expedition from the National Museums of Kenya discovered a third metacarpal bone from a 1.4 million year old Homo erectus. This may not sound exciting, but such bones are rare in the fossil record, and this one was particularly informative:
Like modern human metacarpals, it has a small lump at its base – the styloid. This projection helps stabilise the wrist when the hand is gripping small objects between the thumb and fingers.
This feature of the bone suggests that the hands of Homo erectus were adapted for the manipulation of small objects, stone tools in particular. This feature stands in contrast to the hands of previous hominids, which were adapted to gripping branches.
Since the Acheulean stone tool kit appeared 1.7 million years ago, the implication is that the modern human hand evolved to make stone tools. How about that? Just as our tools are our handiwork, our hands are the handiwork of our tools, so to speak!
(Cameron Diaz courtesy of Tony Shek/Wikimedia commons)
Can more efficiency increase costs? September 24, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
A recent New York Times article discusses reports that the introduction of Electronic Health Records (EHRs) in American hospitals may be increasing the cost of health care in that country. EHRs were introduced, in part, in order to cut down on health care costs by making record keeping and sharing more efficient and therefore cheaper. However, as the article notes, health care bills at hospitals that have adopted EHRs has increased, not decreased. What gives?
One possibility is that EHR systems encourage fraud. It is easy for doctors to click on check boxes that say they have performed tests or examinations that they have not actually performed. For example, one patient noted that he was billed for a complete medical examination that did not occur. He complained and the bill was changed. The patient, a health consultant, blamed the design of the software:
“No one would admit it,” Mr. Burleigh [the patient] said, “but the most logical explanation was he went to a menu and clicked standard exam,” and the software filled in an examination of all of his systems.
In fact, companies that produce EHR systems may be using this sort of “feature” as a selling point. Some vendors advertise that their software helps doctors to game the billing codes to maximize the amount they are able to charge for their services.
Certainly, some systems include features that lend themselves to the maximization of billing levels. They are able to automatically generate detailed reports about patient history, and allow for the copying of examination findings from one patient to another, a practice known as “cloning.” The point of these features seems to be that more detailed records can warrant more severe diagnoses, and therefore more costly services.
Of course, fraud or sharp practice were possible before EHRs. Perhaps, the security measures on EHRs may be more lax than on paper-driven systems. Some critics blame the lack of regulation on EHRs:
Dr. Simborg [former chair of a federal panel on the matter], for one, said he helped draft regulations in 2007 that would have prevented much of the abuse that now appears to be occurring. But because the government was eager to encourage doctors and hospitals to enter the electronic era, he said, those proposals have largely been ignored.
However, the article does not comment on the state of regulations on the earlier billing systems.
Besides fraud, it is possible that increased efficiency could lead to increases in cost. Jevons’ Paradox applies to situations in which gains in efficiency are eroded, or even offset, by increases in consumption. Increases in energy efficiency, Jevons observed, make energy cheaper, encouraging people to consume more of it. In the case of EHRs, gains in efficiency in administration may be “consumed” through a focus on more expensive procedures. That is, doctors may react to time and effort saved in dealing with paper records by scrutinizing patients more thoroughly, perhaps looking for signs of more severe and expensive issues to treat.
It may be that the two issues are related. We would like to think that doctors would expend any gains from increased efficiency productively. However, what counts as productive depends on the incentive structure present in the system. If it pays doctors more to spend their gains in time by fiddling the bills, then we must expect that to happen.
The design of EHRs does seem to be focussed on generating medical bills. As Marshall McLuhan might point out, if bill-generation is the focus of the system, it will soon become the focus of the users as well. So, to reap benefits for patients of time gained through efficiency, perhaps the design of EHRs could be less about the generation of medical bills and more about generation of positive medical outcomes.
Your $lide is my drug! June 17, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
(Image courtesy of the US Navy courtesy of Wikimedia.)
Happily, it turns out that Microsoft is on the job. David Karle, an executive communications manager with the company, is liasing with the military to help them get their habit under control:
The basic idea behind Karle’s Method is to introduce “simplicity, cleanliness and a very refined and simple tool set” to plan a presentation.
[Karle] offered his Method as a way for people to focus on the goals of their presentations, rather than getting hung up on the technology — which results in the tangle of boxes and arrows that give PowerPoint its bad reputation.
The Method is a library of standard graphics, templates, and best practices tips for military personnel to access when creating presentations.
Will it work? Well, my impression of the US military is that it tends to be rule-bound, meaning that it focuses on procedures even when that it not appropriate. Things must be done “by the book”. So, another set of rules, that is, the Method, will just make the process of presentation making more arduous than before.
Karle does suggest that sometimes presenters should not use Powerpoint but instead use Word or a whiteboard, if the situation calls for it. I am sure that is good advice, but is it a cure for the addiction?
Perhaps the military should re-examine its need for presentations. Do so many communications have to take the form of meeting and briefing? I am not suggesting the use of mime, but perhaps they could revive the old-fashioned art of conversation. Or, if they are incurably smitten with communication via computers, perhaps Wikis or blogs would be better sometimes? Whatever his virtues, it is unlikely that David Karle considered such a recommendation. He does sell Powerpoint, after all, and the ultimate message behind Powerpoint, as Marshall McLuhan might argue, is that communication must take the form of bullets, charts, and animated graphics. The only question is, “how many”?
Conservation through competition May 26, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
A study by the Environmental Defense Fund, summarized in this FastCompany article, concludes that consumers who receive detailed power usage reports from their utilities tend to cut down on their electricity consumption. Particularly important also is information comparing the individual customer’s power usage to that of other, similar customers in the same region:
Homes that received the reports slashed energy consumption between 0.9% and 2.9% annually. That sounds like a small amount, but the EDF estimates that cutting residential electricity usage across the U.S by 1.8% would save over 26,000 GWh of electricity, cut greenhouse gas emissions by 8.9 million metric tons of CO2 each year (equivalent to the emissions of three 500 MW coal-fired plants), and help households save a combined total of over $3 billion dollars per year on electricity. That’s a lot of energy savings just for redesigning a bill.
This tendency of people to reduce power consumption when presented with richer information and under pressure of social competition has been noted before. It is interesting to consider how it might work.
(Image courtesy of Paulo Barcellos Jr. via Wikimedia Commons.)
First of all, the introduction of conservation measures does not necessarily result in conservation. Jevons’ Paradox suggests that the presence of more efficient gear can actually increase consumption. For example, the introduction of efficient, LED light bulbs could conceivably increase electricity usage as people find more places they want to light up. Why is it, then, that people who consume power more efficiently after receiving fancy power reports do not simply find more ways to consume power efficiently, thus increasing their overall consumption? Well, this possibility is not ruled out by the EDF report since it accounts only for power consumption in the home, and not at work or elsewhere.
Psychological research suggests that this possibility must be taken seriously. It has been shown that people who make an effort to conserve energy in one way can increase their consumption in another through a process of “moral capital”. That is, people increase their sense of moral righteousness through acts of conservation, thus acquiring “moral capital” that they then spend on themselves later through acts of extravagance. It is as though our moral compass includes a kind of sweet spot of righteous conduct that we aim towards, whether that means improving our conduct or debasing it. See Edward Tenner’s recent blog post on the perverse effects of conflict-of-interest disclosure.
Despite this reservation, I would not conclude that the EDF study has it wrong. Another psychological theory, cognitive dissonance, suggests that people really can be nudged into better behaviour. Researchers in an experiment asked pool patrons to take a survey about their attitudes towards water conservation and their past efforts to conserve water. The real point of the survey was to remind people that conservation is something they approve of, and that they probably have not done as much as they could to conserve water. In short, they were hypocrites. Researchers observed that these subjects took shorter showers than others afterwards, in an apparent effort to conserve water. Receiving a periodic energy consumption report could act like the survey in this experiment, reminding people of their approval of conservation as a good behaviour. That might dampen their tendency to return to their more extravagant former behaviour pattern.
Finally, as Marshall McLuhan would point out, the report itself conveys a powerful message to the utility’s clients: It changes power consumption from an individual (or family) concern into a communal one in which people compete or collaborate in groups. In other words, it reminds customers that their consumption of power affects not only themselves but everyone else on the grid. In turning consumption from an individual to a social concern, it opens people up more to social expectations. If people think that others are aware of their usage and would judge it harshly, then that is a powerful inducement for reduction also.
However, we will not really know what is going on until we have reliable data on the power consumption of individuals instead of light bulbs or homes.
Twitter abbreviates political discourse April 12, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
We are in election mode here in Canada, and so public discourse is turning, somewhat reluctantly, to issues of national politics. Now, the fact that social media are becoming a prevalent mode of public discourse should not shock anyone. However, there are questions about how the medium itself might be affecting the conversation.
(Image courtesy of Pasquale D’Silva via Wikimedia Commons.)
A recent article in the Winnipeg Free Press notes that allegations that the Conservative government misled Parliament (again) have become the focus of much Twittering:
Online forums and social media exploded Monday with discussions about a draft auditor general’s report concluding the government misinformed Parliament on G8 spending.
It represented the largest single-issue spike in election chatter to date.
In a forum limited to 140 characters per tweet, the ideas that gain the most traction in this election are ones that are easy to explain, simple to discuss and amenable for partisan tweeters to paint as black-and-white issues, Blevis [a "digital public affairs strategist"] said.
“Twitter really thrives on these polarizing issues,” he said. “When you think about the limited space, these grey-area issues don’t really fit.”
For example, while more nuanced issues such as health care, education and the economy are being discussed on blogs, there has been very little discussion of them on Twitter, Blevis found.
Because of its design, each media favours a certain form of conversation. Due to its brevity, Twitter becomes the natural forum for views that require little elaboration.
This same tendency has been noted in US politics:
Sarah Palin quickly adopted Twitter perhaps because it enabled her to blast forth dramatic proclamations that, given the 140-character limit, she couldn’t be expected to explain or defend.
Followers of this blog will not, then, be surprised to have their attention drawn back to Marshall McLuhan’s claim that “the medium is the message”. McLuhan pointed out, among other things, that television tends to chop up information into pieces that are easily presented on the small screen. In the case of political discourse, that means soundbites. Although Twitter is not television, its format may be having a similar effect.
Is this aspect of Twitter regrettable? Not necessarily. The ‘net has provided people (with access to it) with many different ways of acquiring and dishing out information. The article above points out that blogs are different than Twitter in the sort of information they convey, for example. If anything, we now have available many more formats for political debate than McLuhan did in his day. It will be interesting to see, however, how Twitter and other social media compete with television for influence. The English candidates’ debate is set for television this evening and, I suspect, this will still be the most influential media event of the campaign. Of course, the networks will likely be following the Tweets afterwards to gauge its impact.
Five articles on computer technology in society January 13, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Well, there are lots of stories that deserve our attention, so I will just supply pointers to a select few:
- From the Risks digest comes the story of a failed FedEx package delivery. The delivery failed because FedEx staff were unable or unwilling to override the package’s incorrect status on their computer system. My question: In the end, is this a story of human triumph or human bondage?
- A doctor writes about how an electronic health record system can change how doctors think about patients. In this case, the system in question limits doctors to a 1000 word description of a patient’s condition. This limit can be a Procrustean Bed that is ill-suited to patients with complicated medical conditions. I am particularly concerned by the attitude of the technician to whom the doctor turns for help:
In desperation, I call the help desk and voice my concerns. “Well, we can’t have the doctors rambling on forever,” the tech replies.
- In the wake of the flash crash of May 2010, concern over the automation of stock trading in the form of high-speed trading has grown. It appears that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, no human being will understand how the stock market really works. Is that a good thing?
- This Wednesday, January 12, 2011, a stolen snow plow was driven recklessly through the city of Toronto. A Toronto Police officer was struck and killed by the plow. In addition, the owner of the plow was tracking it via a GPS device, attempting to recover it. Apparently, such incidents are on the increase, as more and more things become geo-locatable. Police urge that people not do this, and leave tracking and apprehension to them. After all, owners of stolen property getting involved in apprehension can make a charged situation more dangerous. However, it may be difficult to stop people from doing what their gear enables them to do and following their instincts in the heat of the moment.
- Google is creating a conversation mode for its Google Translation software. It promises to allow real-time translation between languages. Such a service might make it much easier and more inviting for people from different parts of the globe to interact with each other. What a gain for mutual understanding! Of course, it could also dis-incentivize people from actually learning foreign languages. So, will the mutual understanding perhaps provided by this gear remain somewhat superficial?
Anyway, clearly, it has been an interesting week for information technology and society.
Location, location, location November 11, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
Besides his claim that, “The medium is the message,” Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan is famous for his prediction that the Western world was set to become a “global village.” To make a long story short, McLuhan thought that electronic media such as television tend to collapse distance. People could be anywhere and literally get a picture of what was happening elsewhere in the world. Almost any location or event could be seen from anywhere else. The effect of TV coverage of the war in Vietnam seemed to bear out McLuhan’s view. This collapse of distance would tend to reduce the world into an elaborate small town or village, where everyone can keep an eye on everyone else’s doings and perhaps get on each other’s nerves.
One implication of this view seems to be that location would cease to be an important datum for people. That is, it would no longer matter so much where in the world things happened, so long as they were televised or, at least, open to viewing from elsewhere. If you could turn on the tube and see what was happening in any given place, who would care to distinguish one place from another one?
Although the Internet seems to satisfy McLuhan’s notion of a global village, it has not brought about the demise of location. It is true that powerful Internet services, such as Facebook, have mitigated distance as an obstacle to communication and observation. Services such as Ebay allow netizens to shop for and purchase goods from around the world. Online news services have brought the news from dozens of news services into easy reach of anyone, anywhere, with Internet access. However, people are hardly done with location.
Online maps and map services retain huge importance in people’s lives. Google services such as Maps, Streetview, and Earth, allow users to explore and learn about particular places, to distinguish them from other places through their unique appearance and history. Users can also augment these services to further embellish and deepen their connection with particular places. For example, Patrick Cain has constructed a service called Poppy Files, that presents users with a map showing where in Toronto Canadian war veterans used to live. The map is covered in poppies designating these locations. Click on a poppy, and you will receive information about the veteran who lived at that location. If you choose, you can add information to the map.
In addition, there are services such as Foursquare, Google’s Lattitude, and Facebook Places, that allow users to track their travels, often with the assistance of GPS enabled smartphones, and post them easily online for their friends and others to see. Users can also “check in” to a given location when they arrive, which allows them to build up their association with the place, even becoming its “mayor” if they hang out at that spot often enough.
Also, governments have been asserting their geographic sovereignty on the Internet. The Chinese government has constructed the so-called Great Firewall of China, a suite of filtering software designed to keep netizens in China from locating sensitive information from outside the country. Nations such as India, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have been pressuring RIM to make cell phone traffic in their territory open to police monitoring. Even the BBC’s popular iPlayer software, that allows Internet users to watch BBC shows over the ‘net, works only if accessed from a .uk site. (Recent reports suggest that iPlayer may go global next year, however.)
Clearly, people’s interest and investment in location and place is far from over, despite the powerful solvent embodied by the broadly and massively connected nature of the ‘net. However, perhaps the recent re-assertion of location is only a swansong, a temporary and rearguard action against the reduction of location. Will location continue its resurgence, and how? Or will it fade in importance as the ‘net continues to develop?
Naheed Nenshi: a creation of social media? October 22, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
You have probably heard that Calgary has a new mayor, Naheed Nenshi. His election is surprising in the sense that:
- Nenshi’s campaign relied heavily on social media like Facebook and Twitter over more traditional strategies such as broadcasting;
- Nenshi beat some “establishment” candidates, such as Conservative Ric McIver;
- Nenshi has never held office before;
- Nenshi is a Muslim.
Congratulations, Mr. Nenshi.
(Image courtesy of Makelaesi via Wikimedia Commons.)
One of the issues raised by this win is the role of social media in it. It is clear that Nenshi’s use of social media played a big role, allowing him to overcome his relative lack of prominence and financial means by spreading his message through word-of-mouth, as it were. It also seems to have helped him to mobilize a large contingent of younger voters, who often sit out municipal (and other) elections. The voter turnout, at 53%, is quite high for such an election in this country.
One lesson from this event might be that “leveraging” social media is important to the success of a political campaign in the 21st Century. True, but, as pointed out in a recent CBC “At Issue” panel, the point is not that Nenshi’s message simply appeared on social media. The point is that Nenshi’s message resonated with people on social media. All the front-runners had their message out but only Nenshi, it would seem, had a message that spoke to his audience in a way that drove them to the polls. So, it is not that “the medium is the message”, to use McLuhan’s famous dictum, but that the medium brought the message and the audience together in a forceful way.
Sign up and pay up July 13, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
We have noted before how social media have changed the workplace. Now comes news about how social media has changed debt collection. This NPR story describes how debt collectors use social media like Facebook to track down debtors. The story tells how Isaac Vicknair, a chronic debt scofflaw, eluded paying back his student loan (among other things) for years, that is, until his employer, a vendor of solar panels, requested that he use Facebook to meet other people in the field:
He put his contact information on his account. It didn’t occur to him that it could lead to trouble.
“So within one day of putting my work information on Facebook, the secretary gets a call from some lady who totally gets my name wrong, and I pick up the phone, and they’re like, ‘Is Mr. Isaac Vicknair there?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve heard this call before.’ Lots of times,” he says.
Rumbled! Apparently, debt collectors are onto this Facebook thing too.
The Canadian media scholar Marshall McLuhan is famous for his apothegm: The medium is the message. Let’s take it to mean that a new medium presents us with a kind of new language for understanding and interacting with the world; that is, a new way of thinking about things (and new things to think about too). Social media like Facebook have given us a novel concept of friendship: anyone with whom we are connected. In this sense, a debt collector is just as good a friend as your most intimate acquaintance. Yet, the older sense of someone whom you know reasonably well and with whom you share common goals and interests lingers and, sometimes, causes confusion and a few laughs.
The Boneyard March 23, 2010Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100 , comments closed
One topic discussed in STV100 is the nature of technological obsolescence. What makes something obsolete? How can it be characterized, if at all? And, assuming something has become obsolete, what happens then? Marshall McLuhan said “If it works, it’s obsolete”, which is an interesting starting point for discussion, but recently I was drawn to “The Boneyard“: billions of dollars of decommissioned military aircraft spread across thousands of acres of Arizona desert.
Officially known as Davis-Monthan Air Force Base – 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), it is the final resting place for thousands of fighter jets, bombers, and aircraft of uncertain obsolete status. Most have been out of production for decades, but are kept for spare parts. The B-52 Stratofortress was designed in the early 1950s for intercontinental nuclear bombing missions, and a small number of the enormous turbojets are still in active service after almost 60 years, though the last one rolled off the production line in the 1960s. Others, like the F-14 Tomcat, a supersonic air-superiority fighter first flown in the 1970s (and famously by Tom Cruise in the 1986 movie Top Gun), are no longer in active service in the US military but survive in other armed forces. The Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force purchased a fleet of F-14s 35 years ago, and a handful are reportedly still in flying condition although a change in political relations makes it doubtful they have access to the AMARG’s supply of spare parts. Still other aircraft have simply been stored in Arizona because of the favorable conditions–low humidity and packed soil–and can be brought back to flight status immediately.
Are these residents of the Boneyard obsolete? Clearly, they still work for somebody, somewhere (AMARG takes pains to point out that they don’t own these planes, just as a storage locker company does not own the contents of their rented lockers). Ultimately, the lesson is straight-forward. Obsolescence is more than a matter of age, or use and it comes down to perspective and context.