Categoryculturally insensitive

Cyborgs

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CYBORG FOUNDATION | Rafel Duran Torrent from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

 

The video above isn’t particularly new (some four months old I think at the time I’m posting it), but I find it both well made and really relevant. The stuff Neil Harbisson has been working on – both on the interface side of things and the societal/political angle the Cyborg Foundation tackles – are at the tip of the iceberg we’re just starting to learn more about: human-machine interfaces.

What we’ve seen so far is baby steps. When Neil says in the video that Prince Charles “sounds good” it can give us a hint at the kind of re-thinking and re-evaluating we’ll have to do, as a society, over the next ten, twenty, fifty years. As we see technological progress, like less invasive brainwave-based interfaces or more powerful artificial eyes and limbs, the cultural norms will have to adapt and shift considerably.

There’s a lot of brilliant thinking going on in this field and it’s super interesting to follow. For some primers, I recommend following Amber Case and Nathan Jurgenson, to name just two.

Defaults

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@aol.com as first default? Rly? At SxSW 2011, a photo booth that strangely used @aol.com as the first default email provider.

 

I grew up in a culture of strong defaults.

 

Growing up in a small town in the Black Forest in South Germany, essentially life is good: It’s a prosperous region, has an overwhelmingly friendly (if sometimes grumpy) population, lots of nature and some of the best clean air and water you could wish for. Between our home and the Black Forest, the actual Black Forest, there was just our neighbors’ houses. I could get to play in the woods within hardly two minutes. In other words, a kid’s paradise.

Defaults v choice

However, and more to the point, this comes at a certain price, and that is lack of heterogeneity and choice. To give you some examples, for my secondary school I had only three school to choose from in my tier (secondary schools in Germany come in three tiers based on grades upon leaving primary school). One was in a hard-to-reach town with only two buses going there per day, so that was easy to rule out. So there was essentially a choice of just two schools, one pretty much like the other. If you wanted Italian or Chinese or Greek food, there was one restaurant of each of these. If you wanted burgers, you drove to the next bigger city and could choose between McDonals and BurgerKing. In other words, choice was limited.

Smart defaults matter

Growing up with strong defaults has a lasting, profound effect on my thinking.

M and I often joke about cultural differences in defaults over choice. Being American, she grew up assuming that you order what you want, indepently from what’s on the menu (within reason, of course). My impulse is to go with a recommendation and maybe deviate just a little.

Example: Ordering sandwiches while out and about, she’d build her order from the ground up depending on her wishes; I’d typically pick a pre-set menu and just tweak it (say, by removing the onions).

If it’s really a cultural difference or if I’m reading too much into it I don’t know. But either way it’s led me to believe that defaults matter a great deal. It’s important – and if we’re in a position to do so, our responsibility – to set smart defaults.

This is how you set the tone and leverage one type of desirable behavior over another.

Lessons from Go

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Recently, I’ve been trying to get back to learning Go. I had dabbled a little a few years back, but then (like now) at a very basic beginner level. My friend Franz has kindly volunteered to teach me a thing or two, and ever since I regularly get my ass kicked. Which is fantastic as it helps me learn.

Note: If you’re a well-versed chess or Go player, you might want to skip this post. All these observations are from my beginner’s perspective and it’s quite possible they don’t do the game and its nuances justice.

Go

Go is a very complex, rich, nuanced game. It’s probably more strategic than chess, has a strong layer of tacticts as well, and lastly there’s a code of mutual respect to be observed. Rude playing is frowned upon, maybe more than playing weak.

Being based on a military metaphor, it’s key to figure out in advance what your goals are – the strategy for the whole field, the big picture. Digging up good old Sun Tzu, we know that the art of war is to fight wars without actually having to do battle. Now, in a game of Go you won’t get by without some actual up close fighting, yet it’s quite possible to capture large chunks of the field without a fight. That is, if your strategic plan is so good that the opponent doesn’t see a chance to break through and claim that same ground.

In that very early beginner stage that I’m in at the moment, a fair bit of the learning experience is to test the waters by trying out variations of strategies and moves, and yet lacking the foresight to play out certain scenes in my mind, there’s an element of experimentation. In other words, quite often I slap down a stone on the field to see what happens.

black and white

While legit to learn, one thing becomes painfully obvious: Without a thought-out strategy, you’ll invariably fail. Playing against Franz, who’s a few levels more experienced and more skilled and helps me analyze the game while it’s going on, there are some moves that have a clear intention and may or may not be played well, but their function is clear. Then there are the experimental ones, the ones where I don’t know what I’m trying to accomplish. Poking in the dark, basically. It is these moves that lead to a thoughtful frown on Franz’s face, as he tries to find the meaning in my move, where really there is none. And again, invaribly these moves fail spectacularly. (In quite educational way, note!)

Another common mistake is to be too reactive. If you’re under pressure, or if you don’t have a clear strategy that you work towards, it’s easy to fall into the trap of reacting to your opponent’s move. In many cases, though, it would be much better to follow your strategy, to be self-directed, thus increasing the pressure on your opponent. Reacting is necessary sometimes, but mostly you should be shaping the game rather than letting someone else control your moves. A clear strategy is the first step. Getting your priorities right is another.

As someone who makes a living giving strategic advice, of course I should know better than to move without a strategy. Yet, it’s a good reminder that if you don’t know the parameters or are lacking actionable information – possible courses of action, the competition, basic knowledge etc – you’re down to guessing if you don’t have someone to support and coach you. Also, often times it’s better to work out a strategy that may not look big or ambitious or powerful, but start with something you know how to handle and then grow from there. It’s often said that 80% of success is to show up; if that’s the case, then I’d wager that another 15% is to just avoid obvious and stupid mistakes.

So I’m going to continue to get my ass kicked until I get around to putting together a solid strategy from all those black and white stones, and how to connect the dots to a coherent picture. Then, using the strategy as a guiding vector, the tactical pieces should fall into place, and some battles are lost, or won.

Assume less, ask more!

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Three notes to myself, based on experiences and conversations about the things others do well.

One, to avoid misunderstandings, or disappointments based on misunderstandings, try to express your expectations explicitly. Less hints, more statements. Bonus points for social grace while doing so.

Two, after important interactions (meetings, finished projects, or anything really), ask how you could do better in the future. Some smart people I know have been doing this for awhile, and it makes a lot of sense. Takes the edge off things by pre-emptively inviting constructive criticism and helps, well, be a better person all ’round.

Three, ask more questions. If in doubt, and maybe even when not in doubt, ask. Is this what you meant? Why do you say that? How do you mean that? What is it that you’re trying to achieve with this? Asking open questions leads to knowledge, better understanding, and an overall better communication style. It also helps getting stuff done by avoiding doing unnecessary stuff. (Note: rhetoric questions and statements with a question mark in the end don’t count.) Assume less, ask more!

All these rules particularly hold true in digital communications, of course, where our messages are stripped of most social clues and misunderstandings are easily amplified.

Now, invoking rule #2 and #3: Are blogposts like this helpful or interesting for you? How could I have communicated these points more clearly?

The last of the Zivis

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Today, the last of the Zivis finished their last day at work. Calling this The End of an Era wouldn’t be overstated: From 1973 to 2011 (today, actually), more than 2.7 million young men served in Germany. (More stats and history in German on Wikipedia.) Only instead of serving in the military, they worked at mostly social institutions like hospital, elder care homes and the like.

1999

I was just about 19 when I put in my year of Zivildienst, roughly from mid-1999 to mid-2000. It was certainly one the most transformative years of my life, potentially also one of the worst, and I’m sure I’d be a very different person today had I not learned what I learned there.

Memories of details are a bit blurry by now, but there are a few things I remember very clearly.

Zivildienst in the Black Forest

My Zivildienst was in a small Black Forest town at the local branch of a large social institution, and the Zivis were used in a variety of context. Shifts in an retirement home, driving both elder people around and disabled kids to school, helping people in need with their chores, as well as elder home care were all part of the tasks we had.

My role was largely as a driver, at least that was my initial assignment. That was good. Often, home care for old or disabled people was part of that deal. Not as fun, but I got to learn a lot, empathy not the least bit of it. Whenever there was trouble back at the HQ, I was placed on some nightshift or another in the retirement home, which I hated.

There was a lot of trouble.

First day

When you were drafted, some of your basic civic rights are revoked. No more freedom of movement (if you went on vacation, you had to let your superiors know), no more civil police (in case of job-related trouble like, say, you not showing up, it was the military police that would come get you). None of that goes down particularly well with a 19-year old. But it’s part of the deal, and I didn’t think much about it. If I did, I grumbled, but shrugged.

Alas, the moment I started my service I know there was trouble on the horizon. On my very first day – I had hardly been briefed on what my job would be – the phone in the common room rang. The same common room where I and the other 15 or so Zivis would hang out for a good deal of the rest of the year. I picked up the phone, because I was the only one around, not having a job yet and all. It was the boss, telling me to come see her at her office.

I went upstairs, expecting my first task or something. Instead, she was clearly in a bad mood and started talking to me, then yelling at me. It became clear that she was pissed off at some other Zivi, or all her Zivis in general, for not showing up at work, or screwing up in other ways.

Even today I remember that conversation quite clearly. I replied quietly, that it was my first day, and that I could not take responsibility for the actions of the others. That I hadn’t yet met them, even. She kept yelling. I distinctly remember replying, still quietly, another three or four times that I don’t see how I could help, but that I also didn’t see myself as the person to blame. After all, it was my first day.

Then, after another five minutes of being yelled at, I snapped. I still remember being very clear that moment, thinking that this is probably not a good idea and that I’d regret it. But I snapped anyway, and started yelling back.

That was the first day of my service, and it didn’t get much better than that.

Vodka, painkillers and a Playstation

I was lucky. I was a home sleeper since I lived nearby, so I had natural breaks where I got out of the context of this work, or rather that office. Others had to stay there, a year at a time. And I remember what it did to a number of my colleagues. People from all walks of life, and everybody coped differently. Some didn’t cope at all. One guy had resorted to painkillers and vodka as his daily routine. Most stuck to a slightly healthier mix of beer and long nights at the Playstation.

During the day, we’d all be in our social role: Taking care of people in need. It’s sometimes hard, often times even gross, where too many bodily fluids are involved. But it’s an enriching, maturing experience that I’m thankful to have made.

But once back the HQ, the mood was different. Morale was often low with a mix of tristesse, anger and desperation. Tristesse because of the routine. Anger about the boss, the unfair and intransparent treatment. And desperation about the lack of power to defend against the mobbing.

And it was mobbing, I see that even more clearly today than I did back then. Vacations were cancelled the day before they’d start on implausible pretexts, certain jobs used as sticks, others as carrots. Legal threats were nothing unusual, which in this context means the same as for soldiers: Jail time is comparatively easy to come by. When you’re hardly 20, you don’t want to take chances and bank on the real probabilities. It scares the shit out of you.

Just as an example, I remember one time where I had cleared a long weekend to go to an IT fair in another city. I was half-way through my service, and hadn’t managed to line up a spot at university, so I wanted to go look for a job. It was 1999, and IT jobs were incredibly attractive. All papers had been signed months in advance. The night before I was supposed to leave, I get a phone call.

I couldn’t go, the boss said. Why?, I asked. Too many people might be sick the next day to keep the service running, she told me. Had anyone called in sick, I asked, suddenly worried. No, not a single person had, she continued. Yet, you’re grounded. Your vacation’s done.

I remember going a few rounds with her, explaining to her how that was an important career thing for me, and pleaded for a while, but to no avail.

The next day, and I’m not proud of this, I called in sick. That didn’t help me though. It didn’t take long and she threatened me with the military police if I didn’t show up – either healthy, to work. Or sick, in which case I’d be forced to move into the HQ until I was back on my feet. She had called my bluff and made me face legal prosecution. I guess you could call it heavy handed management.

This was the kind of atmosphere that marked my service.

On the other hand, so did the camaraderie that sounds like a bit like a cliché, but is a strong bonding force. Throw 15 young guys into an intense shared experience and you get yourselfs some strong bonds, no matter if they last beyond the service or no.

Torn

So you’ll understand why I feel a bit torn about my personal Zivildienst experience.

And yet, I’ve always felt like a service of some sort to your country is a good thing that can strengthen democracy.

People should be able to choose between military and social service. It should be gender-balanced, and include 100% of the people of the respective age bracket. And you should probably get credits for school, or tax incentives, or something. But I think a service year can be a rich experience, and it can give young people a year to get their head straigth about what they want to do afterwards, while doing something societally useful, instead of internships in ad agencies.

As things stand, I’m not going to romanticize or miss the old service. However, if the government introduced a service like that, as a smarter, more balanced follow-up to the service that ended today, I think I’d approve of that. It’s not a bad thing at all. And social institutions across the country would benefit quite a bit.

The Robustness Principle for inter-personal communication

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Connection Problem

The technologists among you will remember Postel’s law, also known as the Robustness Principle:

TCP implementations should follow a general principle of robustness: be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others.

Jon Postel wrote this as a basic rule for what would become the TCP/IP protocol. So he was writing the specifications for a technological communications protocol at the time. He was referring to adherence to technical standards: You should write your software sticking to the technical standards at all times, yet you should design your software to be forgiving in accepting non-standard conform input from others.

Be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send.

This principle has been serving us very well for the development of the web.

I think it serves very well as a principle for inter-personal communication as well.

A Robustness Principal for inter-personal communication

Communication between people follows protocols, just like communication between software agents. So let’s rephrase this a little for the slightly different context of humans talking to humans.

Be respectful in what you send, and forgiving in what you receive.

Usually when a communicative act – a comment, an email, a concersation etc – pisses us off, it’s because we feel disrespected or misunderstood. In many, many cases that effect wasn’t intended. We all know the kind of misunderstandings that easily emerge particularly from text-based conversations.

And it’s no wonder, given that we lack most of the signifiers of meaning in purely written conversations. Namely, no facial expressions, no (or little) context about the other person, no intonation. This fosters misunderstanding, and easily leads to harsh behavior, or even rudeness. Or as XKCD phrases it: “It’s easier to be an asshole to words than to people.

I cannot remember the number of heated discussions I got into and that I’ve seen other normally very tolerant people get into because of an email, or a tweet, or a SMS. It’s just too easy.

(Come to think of it, I’m baffled how many emails get sent without a follow-up fight.)

If you, and I, and maybe a few more folks out there receive the next email that triggers a hostile reaction, let it sit there for awhile. Just don’t answer right away. Think about the ways the other person might have meant it other than the way you read it. Remember they might have just sent this in the blink of an eye, in a rush, under pressure, and might not have the time to re-read it, or to check for the chance something might be easily misinterpreted. Remember if the person has always been difficult to deal with, or if you usually get along. And only if none of this lets the message appear in a better light, then write back, and ask clearly and politely if there is anything that you’ve done wrong that upset them.

I’ve been getting much better at this, and it helps me a lot to think about email etc this way.

So if you – like I – are a bit trigger happy with your emails, please allow me this suggestion: Let’s adapt this special version of the Robustness Principle as a guideline for all our inter-personal communication. It’ll make all our lives easier, and take the edge off, a bit at a time.

So here it is once more, the Robustness Principle for inter-personal communication:

Be respectful in what you send, and forgiving in what you receive.

Note: I think I first stumbled across the idea of the Robustness Principle being applied to day-to-day communications in conversations with Parker, who also wrote about it.

Thoughts on the mainstreaming of openness

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Disclaimer: I’m strongly biased towards openness. I prefer free and open software over closed systems, I prefer an open and decentralized web over a closed and centralized one. I prefer transparency over obscurity.

That said, I’d also consider myself a pragmatic idealist (thanks for the hint, Igor) in the sense that I think to reach certain idealistic goals it’s sometimes necessary (or even ok) to make compromises.

Examples: I use a Mac (closed) to feed my WordPress blog (open); I use Twitter (kinda closed) to promote open web ideals (open: duh!); my phone is powered by Android (open) but uses HTC’s Sense UI (closed).

So when we were about to announce an event that’s promoting the ideals of an open web (Drumbeat), we discussed how to best promote the event. We decided to complement the “official” event page on the Drumbeat site with a Facebook event page.

I insisted on having this second option, and for several reasons. One of those reasons is merely of the practical kind: it’s much easier to organize an event if you have any idea how many people are coming, and Facebook is very, very convenient to use that way. The other reason is more philosophical: I believe to reach out to new people, i.e. if you want to mainstream the discussion and get more people involved, you have to reach out to them where they mostly communicate. Facebook is an obvious choice, as you get access to a whole lot of people.

Like we almost expected, we got into a little flame war over this decision, including all the all-so-common personal attacks and insults. (My favorite being the statement that it’s “people like [me] who destroy the open web”, and that we’re “riff-raff”. I was surprised not to see Godwin’s Law invoked, but maybe that will happen in the next few mails?) To put one thing straight: I’m not even insulted, I find it very amusing to read a lengthy, hand-crafted personal attack. I appreciate, one could say, the effort people like this invest in personal trolling. (As long as – like in this case – it doesn’t even hit the mark and stays within certain boundaries.)

But it did get me thinking, and we discussed this a lot afterwards: To which degree is it ok to use a closed platform to promote an open web? And I stand by my decision, and would like to re-iterate: it’s not only ok, but necessary not to insist on personal moral high ground and being the true believer that knows everything better; but to go where the people you’d like to get involved really are and discuss with them. It’s not ok, and most likely damaging, to just assume everybody on the planet is thinking about these issues all day, and if they don’t leave all their bad habits behind they don’t deserve any better.

This kind of thinking is, from my point of view, arrogant, hypocritical and damaging. It devalues the ideals these same people strive to promote.

(I’m sure many other professions have to make similar decisions every day, like international development aid workers, who buy building materials on local markets to strengthen the local economy, even though they know that a certain share of those revenues go back to funding the same groups that caused the underlying structural problems.)

Long story short: For the time being I’ll keep doing it the way I’ve done it so far. I’ll keep using Facebook to promote events, I’ll stick to Twitter if that’s where I reach new people. But I’d like to hear your take on this!