Google strikes back May 13, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
I have posted before about some of the dissing that Google Glass has received so far, even before its introduction. For example, it has been compared to the Segway, a personal mobility vehicle that never took off as its inventors intended.
(Loic Le Meur/Wikimedia commons)
But Google has been fighting back, countering the criticism with some positive PR. For example, Google has publicized some warm feelings from beta testers:
Mary Lambert got cooking instructions using Glass. “The friend who I was doing it with could see what I was doing and was like ‘No no no, that’s all wrong,’ which was really helpful and I didn’t expect it,” she says.
So, interacting with Glass is better than interacting with friends? Well, friends are not always well-informed or compliant, unlike Glass.
Critics, I suppose, would argue that early adopters like everything new–like the Segway–whether it is really a good idea or not.
Another time-honoured way to take some heat off Glass is to identify a marginalized social group with whom everyone is sympathetic and who might surely benefit from the new technology. In this case, Google points out that war veterans could use Glass to have a better experience at war memorials:
[Sarah] Hill is convinced that leading a virtual tour for veterans while wearing Google Glass would be completely different for them than showing the group just a DVD. She says it gives them the ability to ask questions and request certain sights and sounds, like the waves on the beaches of Normandy or the waterfalls at the World War II memorial.
This use of Glass is similar to another new technology, also discussed by NPR, namely Sony’s new Entertainment Action Glasses. The purpose of these specs is to help deaf people enjoy movies in theaters:
Sony Entertainment Access Glasses are sort of like 3-D glasses, but for captioning. The captions are projected onto the glasses and appear to float about 10 feet in front of the user. They also come with audio tracks that describe the action on the screen for blind people, or they can boost the audio levels of the movie for those who are hard of hearing.
This technology might well be really enjoyable for deaf movie fans and could help to boost attendance in theaters somewhat. Of course, Sony’s Glasses won’t be recording any movies, perhaps unlike sets of Google Glass in front of the big screen.
This comparison suggests that veterans might be better served by simpler and more specialized gear like the Action Glasses, which would also likely be a lot cheaper than Glass.
I do not know whether Google Glass will succeed in the marketplace or not. However, its road to success would be smoother if Google could somehow assure institutions like restaurants and movie theaters that its gear won’t imperil their business enough to make them want to ban it.
(Stop the cyborgs/Wikimedia commons)
first all-3D printed gun fired May 8, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Huffington Post reports that Defense Distributed has designed and test-fired a pistol made on a 3D printer. The only parts not printed out were the firing pin, for which a common nail is used, and strip of metal to comply with US laws requiring guns to be detectable by metal detectors. (This last part can be left out if desired.)
The pistol is called “the Liberator“, in honor of the group’s goal “to defend the civil liberty of popular access to arms” by making printable gun designs available to anyone with an internet connection.
There appears to be nothing illegal in DD’s efforts. It is legal, in the United States, for people to make guns for their own use. A license is required to sell them. Whether or not it is advisable to design printable guns is less clear, although Wilson is not deterred:
“This tool might be used to harm people,” Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson told Forbes magazine. “I don’t think that’s a reason to not put it out there. I think that liberty in the end is a better interest.”
There is some push-back from law-makers on the matter. California State Senator Leland Yee is drafting legislation that would ban the printing of weapons of this sort. Nationally, Senator Chuck Schumer and Congressman Steve Israel are drafting similar legislation.
Such laws would, I imagine, be challenged in court as violations of Americans’ Second Amendment right to bear arms. How such laws and challenges would fare, I do not know.
From a broader perspective, the right to carry weapons is often seen as implicit in the right to self-defence, a basic right. However, the need for universal arming would seem to make the most sense in a state of universal threat to individual safety, a Hobbesian “war of all against all.” In fact, though, gun violence has been declining in the US, in spite of the common impression to the contrary. So, it seems that Americans are actually winning that “war”. Will DIY weapons help or hurt that cause? Or, is that issue irrelevant, as Wilson seems to believe?
More dissing for Google Glass May 7, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Google Glass is months from its commercial introduction, but it is already getting a rough ride. I noted in a recent posting that some commentators have found Glass to be too “dorky”. The basic complaint is that wearing Glass will make you seem rude and out-of-it to the people around you. Fear of this condition (“Glass eye”?), that is, not wanting to appear dorky in public, will inhibit uptake of Google Glass by consumers.
As noted by the New York Times, resistance to Google Glass is already gathering steam:
The glasses-like device, which allows users to access the Internet, take photos and film short snippets, has been pre-emptively banned by a Seattle bar. Large parts of Las Vegas will not welcome wearers. West Virginia legislators tried to make it illegal to use the gadget, known as Google Glass, while driving.
“This is just the beginning,” said Timothy Toohey, a Los Angeles lawyer specializing in privacy issues. “Google Glass is going to cause quite a brawl.”
Glass is poised to turn all its wearers into paparazzi, recording one another on the sly. Google responds that they have considered the possible dork factor: Google Glass must be turned on via voice or manual command, and the subject must be directly in the line of sight of the wearer before recording can start. Thus, people will know when they are being recorded. Maybe. The article notes that some developers have already hacked Glass, allowing the user to begin recording with merely a wink.
Then there is the issue of distraction. The state of Virginia has already considered legislation that would ban drivers from using Google Glass behind the wheel, which would otherwise be permitted as a hands-free device under current law. No doubt, other jurisdictions will be considering similar measures in the near future.
Google Glass will not be permitted in some private venues. The “5 point bar” in Seattle, for example, has already banned customers from using the gear there on the grounds that patrons want a private experience there. Also, Glass will not be permitted in casinos in Las Vegas, which prohibit people from using any recording device.
In a CNN article, former secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, compares Google Glass to drone technology:
Now imagine that millions of Americans walk around each day wearing the equivalent of a drone on their head: a device capable of capturing video and audio recordings of everything that happens around them. And imagine that these devices upload the data to large-scale commercial enterprises that are able to collect the recordings from each and every American and integrate them together to form a minute-by-minute tracking of the activities of millions.
I guess that Chertoff has the unarmed variety of drone in mind, although more than a few Americans do carry heat. Certainly, there is potential for abuse here, but Google’s use of the data could presumably be regulated, as their use of Street View data is. Perhaps Google’s computers could track only those who have explicitly agreed to it.
Google views concerns like this one as over-reactions. By and large, they feel, people will continue to treat each other much as before:
Thad Starner, a pioneer of wearable computing who is a technical adviser to the Glass team, says he thinks concerns about disruption are overblown.
“Asocial people will be able to find a way to do asocial things with this technology, but on average people like to maintain the social contract,” Mr. Starner said. He added that he and colleagues had experimented with Glass-type devices for years, “and I can’t think of a single instance where something bad has happened.”
How hard were they looking?
And what is Google’s view of the social contract? My idea is that I do not expect to be tracked under normal circumstances, even when in public. I do not expect to be tailed by police, for example, unless they have “probable cause” to suspect that I am up to something nefarious. Is that Google’s view?
Google does seem to have something different in mind:
Like many Silicon Valley companies, Google takes the attitude that people should have nothing to hide from intrusive technology.
“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” said Eric Schmidt, then Google’s chief executive, in 2009.
In other words, Google takes the view that, by appearing in public, people have implicitly agreed to be tracked; otherwise, they should not have made themselves visible. Is that really the social contract?
More likely, gear like Google Glass will require people to re-negotiate the social contract. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.
In the meantime, Google Glass got some more love over the weekend, this time from Saturday Night Live:
Perhaps users of Glass will be the ones to worry about their public appearances.
Recharge batteries with “free” power January 16, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
The Atlantic Cities blog has a neat post about a German designer, Dennis Siegel, who has devised a gadget that allows you to recharge small batteries using the energy of ambient electric fields. You might, for example, recharge a AAA battery using the device by placing it near an appliance like a coffee maker or a power transformer station.
Here is how Siegel explains his idea:
We are surrounded by electromagnetic fields which are actually pure energy fields. Consequently there is some energy that can’t be completely consumed. This redundant energy can be used for other purposes like powering devices. Accordingly, I wanted to build a device that is able to harvest this energy while creating an awareness of electromagnetic spaces and their unheeded energy.
I have two questions about this idea:
- I am no electrical engineer, but I doubt that the energy being harvested is strictly redundant. My guess is that the energy harvested by the charger would be experienced by the electrical appliance as a form of resistance, causing it to draw more current. The increase in current usage would increase the cost of running the appliance. In short, the energy is not redundant or “free”.
- Is this the best way to create awareness of electromagnetic spaces? I think that might be a good idea, but wouldn’t a meter or an visualization app be more informative and attention-grabbing?
Of course, Siegel’s device has already garnered some attention for himself.
Instagram’s day in the doghouse December 19, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
- Instagram can share information about its users with Facebook, its parent company, as well as outside affiliates and advertisers.
- You could star in an advertisement — without your knowledge.
- Underage users are not exempt.
- Ads may not be labeled as ads.
- Want to opt out? Delete your account.
Instagram has since clarified its position, arguing that it never meant to appropriate users’ photos in this way and it is clarifying its language to assure its users of this. Whether Instagram really made a mistake or employed the trial balloon strategy usual for Facebook is a matter for debate.
“Instagram isn’t going to sell your photos, Facebook is going to use them to access data to further help them push more and more targeted ads,” said Kerry Morrison, CEO of Endloop Mobile, a Toronto-based app developer.
Facebook did buy Instagram–for $1 billion–remember?
So, whatever else it means, this faux pas by Instagram illustrates a couple of issues regarding privacy and free services on the Internet. First, terms of service may be changed at any time, particularly when a service provider is bought by another company. Second, the default will always be opt-out, that is, you are a part of the service’s monetization program unless you explicitly opt out (if that is even possible).
One way to opt out is to adopt a service that you pay for up front. However, opting out of a popular service is difficult and even costly, as Instagram is well aware. Many people have invested much time, effort, and money in setting up their Instagram accounts. Deleting those accounts would mean losing that investment and the connections that come with it. Another option might be to pay to opt out while remaining in the service. This solution might be reasonable, although it hardly seems to be in Facebook’s “DNA”.
Phone squatting June 7, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
An article about a new phenomenon, that I will call “phone squatting”, appeared in a recent New York Times. In a nutshell, phone squatting means parking your car in a parking space and then using your phone for calls, texts, etc. This phenomenon seems to be on the rise, and is sometimes a sore point for other drivers who covet the spot occupied by the squatter:
Brianne Miller was parked recently in downtown San Francisco e-mailing on her BlackBerry. She heard a honk, looked up and discovered a man in a BMW waiting for her spot. She signaled to him that she would be a few more minutes.
“He flashed an obscene gesture,” she said. She smiled and waved, trying not to escalate things. “He sped off in a huff,” she added with a laugh. “It was a really, really good spot.”
The article notes that the increase in phone squatting would seem to be a positive thing: It may reflect the growing acceptance that driving while texting or talking is not a good idea. Better to pull into a parking spot to use the phone.
The article, I think, does not get to the bottom of the drawbacks of phone squatting. As the example above suggests, the immediate issue is that other drivers may desire the spot taken up by the squatter. The person wanting the spot then gets frustrated when it becomes clear that the spot that seemed to be opening up is, in fact, not available.
If that were the only issue, then I think that phone squatting would not merit much attention. We would simply get used to this new and understandable practice. However, phone squatting also undermines the social contract that underlies how drivers share parking spaces. The understanding is that the purpose of parking spaces (in most cases) is to provide drivers with access to neighboring amenities, such as stores. That is, a driver parking in a spot is expected to get out of the car, do some shopping or visiting, and then return and leave, freeing the space for another visitor. The practice of phone squatting violates this expectation because it treats the spot itself as the amenity: The driver does not exit the car while making use of the spot. Other drivers may see this use of parking spaces as illegitimate. As Brianne Miller notes, she had a “good spot”, good not merely as a place to put a car but good as a place from which nearby amenities could easily be accessed.
What is to be done? One option is to do nothing. With time, the public may simply come to understand in a new way how parking spots are to be shared. If drivers come to regard them as amenities in their own right, then the problem will cease to exist, at least as a matter of social contract. However, many parking lots are provided by businesses for the convenience of clients, and those businesses are not likely to welcome squatters. Perhaps certain spaces could be designated for squatting, much like spaces for people with special needs. Spaces on the periphery of parking lots might be ideal, as they would be less likely to inconvenience paying customers. Of course, businesses may not be thrilled with paying for such spaces either, although it might make for some good PR.
Another possibility would be for government to pay for parking spaces designated for squatting or, at least, available for squatters. Given the increase in public safety to be had from providing such spaces, this system might be a good value for the public expenditure. Of course, taxpayers might insist that drivers should simply upgrade to hands-free devices, which remain legal for use while driving in many jurisdictions. Why make the public subsidize drivers who do not invest in proper equipment?
In fact, I think that designing a proper solution to this issue would have to await more systematic study of it. Where does this issue really become a problem, when, and for whom? Whatever the answer, it provides a good illustration of how the design of technology, including cell phones and parking, reflects a mutual understanding about how certain resources are shared in the public realm.
What does Facebook owe its users? February 16, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
There is an interesting little segment on NPR in which the irrepressible Jaron Lanier argues that Facebook should pay its users. Well, that is, some of its users.
What Lanier has in mind is not a sort of socialist scheme in which Facebook owes its users wages in compensation for their labors on its behalf (the users do generate most of the content). After all, the users are compensated by being provided with Facebook’s services. Instead, Lanier views the current arrangement as being, in a way, too socialist! That is, users are bartering their labors in exchange for Facebook’s services, and a bartering economy is not a solid foundation for the world of the future. Indeed, this arrangement is actually undermining Facebook’s business model, on which it monetizes the content generated by users through selling advertising directed at them:
As we move from an information age to an information economy, people are getting poorer. That’s because even though they’re building social networks, he explains, they’re not being paid in wages. The haves who control the servers reward the have-nots with likes and friends. It’s a prehistoric bartering system, he says, not full-fledged capitalism.
Well, people without spending money are probably not worth advertising to. In Lanier’s view, it would be better if Facebook simply paid users or, at least, the users who generate the most popular content. Also, it could charge users for access to its services, and thus make up what it would forgo in advertising revenue.
It is clear that this proposal will not fly, not anytime soon. Facebook is heavily committed to its current business model. However, the argument contains some interesting points worth examining. The first point concerns the focus on downplaying the role of advertising in Facebook’s (or the future Internet’s) business model. Lanier proposes that Facebook should instead make its money through a system of wages and charges. Some service providers, such as YouTube, do engage in this sort of exchange. Then again, so do advertisers. Here, I am thinking of the phenomenon of the haul video, in which companies pay people to talk up their wares on the Internet, e.g., on Youtube, in exchange for products or money. If Facebook went to the model that Lanier suggests, it is possible that advertisers would still play a dominant role in its economy through indirect means such as this one, that is, paying people to talk up their stuff on Facebook. If that is true, then Lanier’s proposal might not produce the desired effect.
Lanier’s argument also raises a broader issue, the issue of what Facebook owes to its users or to society in general. He maintains that Facebook’s current model is impoverishing its users. The evidence cited is a general downturn in the welfare of users as Facebook profit has climbed. Of course, this argument, as it is presented, is not persuasive. It is true that Facebook profit has increased during an economic downturn, but it does not follow that Facebook has contributed to that problem. Neither does it follow that Facebook has not; the matter is merely inconclusive. One might point to confounding issues, such as globalization, to explain decreases in the effective income of Facebook users, for example.
Beyond the epistemological issues, there is a moral one. Does Facebook owe prosperity to its users? The conventional view of a capitalist economy is one where the social duty of companies is to make money, in addition to avoiding fraud, anticompetitive practices, and other forms of malfeasance. Suppose that Facebook’s success is contributing to the impoverishment of its users. Would that be unfair to the users? Would it be violating the social contract? I think you could make a reasonable case for the answer “yes”, provided that Facebook becomes a dominant force in the marketplace, which, it is worth adding, it seems poised to do. Of course, anyone wanting to make money from Facebook’s success could soon buy stock. However, the cost of getting into stocks, not to mention the possible price of the stock itself, could lock out a substantial portion of the service’s users.
So, I am skeptical of Lanier’s proposal for Facebook but I do think that his argument gives us some important things to think about as we progress into the new economy.
Is Internet access a human right? January 6, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
Vint Cerf has written an interesting little piece in the New York Times arguing that Internet access is not a human right. He notes that this opinion runs counter to that given recently by a UN special rapporteur and the governments of France and Estonia (and Finland), which have made access a civil right.
(Joi Ito/Wikimedia Commons)
Cerf concedes the importance of ‘net access as an enabler for the realization of rights, such as a right to freedom of speech or expression. However, he argues that the ‘net is merely a tool, and so not worthy or eligible for the status of a human right:
… technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things. For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.
There is substance to this argument. For example, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants mobility rights to each citizen. That is, Canadians are entitled to move about freely within the public realm of the country, particularly for the purpose of changing residence or seeking work. The Charter does not guarantee to citizens any particular means of mobility, such as a road system, a horse, or a car.
However, Cerf may be missing the point. Although the Internet is a technological item, it is not only that. Consider first that the Internet has remained the Internet even though the technology has completely changed (several times) since Cerf and other researchers first invented it. Thus, the Internet should not be identified with this or that set of hardware.
I made a casual statement about how “technology is a tool.” It’s an innocuous phrase that has been uttered by millions of technocrats at one time or another.
But Graham looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Andrew, I have to disagree with you. IP is a social contract, not a tool.”
The instant he said it, I knew it was true, and I realized I had missed an important piece of the puzzle. IP (Internet Protocol) is a relatively simple set of rules used by all the individual networks that comprise the “Internet.” The IP rules work only because individual network operators have informally agreed to abide by them for the last twenty years or so–an informal social contract.
On this view, the Internet is not a particular collection of gadgetry but an item that obeys a protocol or agreement about how such gadgets should interact. Adhering to the agreement or contract is what makes something the Internet, not its momentary physical configuration.
In that case, a right of Internet access is not a right to access a particular collection of hardware. Instead, it is a right of access to a certain form of communication, regardless of the exact means.
Perhaps, then, Cerf’s concern is unfounded. Those who advocate a right of Internet access are not trying to force the government to guarantee each citizen a horse. Instead, they are advocating that governments guarantee each citizen some opportunity to communicate via the ‘net. This notion is not then as crazy as Cerf makes it sound. After all, access to the ‘net is overtaking traditional rights, such as freedom of assembly and mobility. If you have ‘net access, then your need to go to a particular location to discuss current events or to seek work is diminished. If ‘net access is rising to a par with access to public spaces and to other provinces, then surely it deserves serious consideration as a civic right.
Playing in public spaces November 14, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Improv comedian Charlie Todd gives a TEDx talk about putting on amusing activities in public spaces. Examples include “no pants day” on the New York City subway, or having a group of 50 volunteers in blue polo shirts hang out in a Best Buy store, making it look as though the store has been flooded with employees (who wear that sort of shirt as part of their uniform).
One issue raised by the video concerns the appropriate use of public spaces. We tend to think of such use in terms of casual enjoyment, that is, walking around, drinking coffee, or in terms of organized expression, such as a public rally. The idea of playing in way that distracts people from their own affairs would normally be considered inappropriate. Of course, there is not normally anything actually illegal about such japes and buskers are welcome (or tolerated) in some locations. Also, the invention of the flash mob has expanded people’s notion of what public spaces may be used for.
Todd argues that play as public spectacle is acceptable and, indeed, healthy for a couple of reasons. First, it is a constructive way of spending time. He mentions that some critics consider his antics to be a waste of effort. Why not do something more serious? His response is that play is not necessarily a waste of time. Children do it for no other reason than that it is fun. Provided no one is harmed or threatened, why does this reasoning not also apply to grown-ups?
Second, the activities create a kind of positive, shared experience. The best example from the video is the “no pants” day. As the comic nature of the jest becomes clear, people in the audience look at each other and laugh. At that point, the experience becomes enjoyable for them. Further, it forms a shared experience that brings people together. Strengthening social solidarity is something that public spaces are indeed supposed to promote.
Hm. What sort of jests would be appropriate and acceptable in a public space like our campus?
Traffic lights October 7, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Traffic lights have become “mythic” in the sense that we simply take them and their basic design for granted. (See here for Neil Postman’s use of the term mythic in this sense.) It is interesting, then, to find a public service video from the 1930s that tries to explain traffic lights and their operation to the general, car-driving public. Have a look!
One interesting aspect of the video is that it captures a time when traffic lights were in widespread use but were only starting to be standardized nationally. Some lights had two colors, green and red, whereas others had three or even four. Some lights also had semaphores that said “Stop” or “Go”. Some systems had amber lights come on while green or red lights were still lit. Other systems allowed only one light on at a time.
It is amusing to consider how the design of traffic lights embodies a kind of social contract regarding how motorists should share an important resource, namely street intersections. An automatic regulation system allows people the liberty of the public roads while requiring them to acknowledge and respect the same liberty of others.
Interestingly, the video segment does not explicitly touch on the pro-social aspect of traffic lights. Instead, it concentrates on the more selfish reasons to adhere to the new rules: If you obey the traffic lights, you will get to your destination sooner and with less wear-and-tear on your car. Indeed, the traffic lights themselves tend to detach the attention of drivers from the motorists on the intersecting streets. It is the relation between each driver and the traffic light that matters; relations with other drivers are mediated by the signal system. Contrast this form of control with the traffic circle (which you see more of in Waterloo Region these days) in which each driver is forced to reckon directly with the others using the intersection. Traffic circles force drivers, however fleetingly, to think about how they are obligated to share the road with others.