S07E24 of Connection Problem: End of the Year, End of the Season

Note: This is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter in an attempt to both to make it easier to read this via RSS feed and to have this in my own independent archives. You can subscribe here to get it delivered to your inbox.


Hello hello,

A happy end of the year. I hope this finds you in good health and in even better spirits.

This is going to be the last newsletter I’m sending out this year, and it’s also going to be the cap for season 7. Next year — in 2 or 3 weeks — you’ll hear from me again with the opening of (drum roll!) season 8.

Out of curiosity I just did a quick calculation and learned that just for this newsletter I wrote a total of about 50.000 words this year. That doesn’t count the blog (which I haven’t calculated yet) nor client reports, essays, other publications. It’s been a busy year.

In related news, I’m doing a short end-of-year push to sign up more folks to my SPECIAL PROJECTS membership. This supports things like the newsletter, but also all the other writing and more concrete, largely invisible stuff: Time I take to give input to research projects, to give feedback to students, to informally provide expertise to policy makers and decision makers. In my mind, this all falls into the buckets of “research” and “professional activism”: It’s stuff that I think needs to happen.

If you know anyone who you think would enjoy supporting this, or who’d benefit from reading this newsletter, I’d ask that you kindly forward this email.

I hasten to add, this does not constitute my livelihood; but it helps tremendously to see some external support to justify spending all this time on non-client work and stay motivated doing so. The more, the merrier!

But enough of that now. Enjoy this last issue, and the holiday season!



You’re receiving this because you signed up for this newsletter on tinyletter.com/pbihr or through my company’s website, thewavingcat.com. The Waving Cat is a boutique research and strategic advisory firm; I co-founded ThingsCon, a non-profit that explores responsible tech. To support my independent research & advocacy, why not join the SPECIAL PROJECTS membership? On Twitter, I’m @peterbihr. If you’d like to work with me or bounce ideas, let’s have a chat.


Brief updates from the engine room

ThingsCon’s Good Things Festival is over and I had a blast. We’ll be sharing updates, look-backs, videos etc over on thingscon.org piece by piece as we get to process all the stuff, of which there is a lot. There, we also launched the annual RIOT Report, and of course the ThingsCon podcast that Andrea Krajewski and I have been recording continues to publish one interview a week. You can find ThingsCon Stories on the ThingsCon website and in your favorite podcast directory.

(2) The first project I’m planning to tackle through the membership is a book, working title Responsible Tech – A Pragmatist’s Guide. After the end of the year got pretty busy, this will have to wait until early next year, though.

(3) Simply Secure’s rebranding process is well on its way, and I feel happy and honored to be part of their advisory committee for this project. It’s a great organization, and a peer-based co-creation process seems a perfect cultural fit.

(4) I’ve almost completed Project Clean Slate 2021, which aims to hand over or shut down all non-essential projects in order to free up mental bandwidth — and frankly, just time! — for new projects next year. It’s a major house cleaning, and I’ve been tying up a lot of loose ends. Looking forward to 2021!


Recently on the blog


Revisiting NYC’s Smart City Guidelines

New York City’s smart city guidelines from back in 2016 are worth revisiting: Creating a Smart and Equitable City. For one, “equitable” is a pretty good qualifier. But also, the way the NYC CTO team shares their thinking openly is a really nice touch.

The team recently reached out for some feedback on a related pre-release document which I’ll be happy to share once it’s published. Without spoiling anything, rest assured that it continues on this very promising path.


The Great Inversion & Abstraction: Matt Webb at ThingsCon

Software famously eats the world, but also, the world is increasingly a subset of the internet of things, argues Matt Webb at ThingsCon. He call it the Great Inversion and that certainly has a certain ring to it. A sticky metaphor. And a great talk/essay (the recording will be up on the ThingsCon website soon).

But maybe more interesting is this bid about how physical world stuff is increasingly subject to the (world) computer’s logic of abstraction, when consequences are hidden behind the interface, below the API (highlights mine):

But in the real world, when consequences are hidden, situations tend to be abused.
And what happens when the real world is, well, just another device, thanks to IoT?
Well, you tap an app on your phone, and you call a car. The driver rents their car, is paid below minimum wage, has no savings. They’re an independent contractor so they don’t have employment benefits. At some point the workers will be automated away. The company is structured so that they are, in the parlance, “asset light” – but also so that they can’t be held accountable.
We, the tapper of the app, are insulated, because of the logic of abstraction.

For someone like me (and given you have time to read this) most likely you who lives decidedly above the API — we’re the tappers, not the ones summoned by someone else’s tap — this hits pretty close to home. I’ll just leave this here for a moment of reflection.

(I highly recommend reading Matt’s post, so here’s the link once more.)


The Science of Gifting

A fun thing I learned courtesy of the New York Times: There’s apparently solid research on giving and receiving gifts, and it boils down to this: Gift givers and gift recipients favor very different things.

Price is scientifically proven to be practically irrelevant to recipients but important to gift givers. But also, paraphrasing roughly, from recipients’ points of view these are the rough guidelines that research has unearthed:

  • Useful is better than fancy
  • The gift doesn’t have to be useful immediately, recipients don’t mind waiting
  • If giftees tell you what they like, give what they ask for
  • Experiences trump things

Good reminders all ‘round.


Small bits & pieces

The 2038 problem is a Y2K-style date issue that is expected to disproportionally impact embedded systems, as in “many transportation systems from flight to automobiles” (Wikipedia), even though people who understand this stuff tell me it’s mostly harmless and there are klutches in place to prevent it from becoming a real issue. Still, seems this is becoming a somewhat embarrassing pattern. / DARPA research has been learning how to launch drones from planes and grab them out of the air: Project Gremlin / Ding Magazine has a new issue out, and as always Julia Kloiber and her team have done a tremendous job. / These “how to pretend your in X” articles are surprisingly fun. Here: How to Pretend You’re in Tokyo (NYTimes)


Currently reading: Attack Surface, Cory Doctorow; A Promised Land, Barack Obama


If you’d like to work with me or have a chat to explore collaborations, let’s chat! 


Who writes here? Peter Bihr explores how emerging technologies can have a positive social impact. At the core of his work is the mission to align emerging technologies and citizen empowerment. He works at the intersection of technology, governance, policy and social impact with foundations, public and private sector. He is the founder of The Waving Cat, a boutique research and strategic advisory firm. He co-founded ThingsCon, a non-profit that explores fair, responsible, and human-centric technologies. Peter was a Mozilla Fellow (2018-19) and an Edgeryders Fellow (2019). Baser in Berlin, he tweets at @peterbihr and blogs at thewavingcat.com. Interested in working together? Let’s have a chat.

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