Tagsociety

Welcome to the Post-Social Media Era

W

The last decade was the era of Social Media: Community-driven platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and even LinkedIn have completely changed the way we interact with, and perceive, the world.

(Purely anecdotally: I joined Twitter in 2006, about a year after it launched—and felt I was late to the game. Since then, I think I owe a great deal of my career to the people I met through Twitter.)

Societally, the impact of these platforms has been amazing: They have enabled communities to form, they allowed people with niche interests to find likeminded folks around the globe, and they have empowered groups to advocate and campaign for their causes globally without the need for traditional, large scale campaign infrastructure.

Social media also has made us all (with a caveat: some more than others) commentators, and active participants in the global media conversation. In the process, they allowed for real-time fact checking and commentary of media and politics. For a while, it seemed this was a bottom-up revolution that propelled society to more truth, easier access to facts and experts, and a more informed public.

Image (Public Domain): U.S. National Archives: Actual Demonstration by the Fire Department Training Station. Photographer: David Falconer.

And it has, to a degree. But at the same time, the same mechanics have also led to large scale harassment and fake news, and have helped undermine trust in journalism (aka “main stream media”) and political institutions like governments and political parties. Turns out tools aren’t neutral or a-political; and even if they were, Bad Guys are really savvy using tools for nefarious purposes.

By now, the combination and scale of fake news, harassment, and intransparent platforms with their black box algorithms are killing social media as we know it:

Social media first undermined the media’s and institutions’ credibility, and now their own. Facebook and Twitter (the platforms) are the tech world’s functional equivalent of main stream media; Facebook and Twitter (the companies) are the institutions.

In their place small, private groups thrive (think Whatsapp), but public social media has peaked.

We’re headed into a social media winter. The post-social era has begun.

Are we the last generation who experienced privacy as a default?

A


Attack of the VR headsets! Admittedly, this photo has little to do with the topic of this blog post. But I liked it, so there you go.

The internet, it seems, has turned against us. Once a utopian vision of free and plentiful information and knowledge for all to read. Of human connection. Instead, it has turned into a beast that reads us. Instead of human connection, all too often we are force-connected to things.

This began in the purely digital realm. It’s long since started to expand into the physical world, through all types of connected products and services who track us—notionally—for our own good. Our convenience. Our personalized service. On a bad day I’m tempted to say we’ve all allowed to be turned into things as part of the the internet of things.

///

I was born in 1980. Just on the line that marks the outer limit of millenial. Am I part of that demographic? I can’t tell. It doesn’t matter. What matters is this:

Those of us born around that time might be the last generation that grew up who experienced privacy as a default.

///

When I grew up there was no reason to expect surveillance. Instead there was plenty of personal space: Near-total privacy, except for neighbors looking out of their windows. Also, the other side of that coin, near total boredom—certainly disconnection.

(Edit: This reflects growing up in the West, specifically in Germany, in the early 1980s—it’s not a shared universal experience, as Peter Rukavina rightfully points out in the comments. Thanks Peter!)

All of this within reason: It was a small town, the time was pre-internet, or at least pre-internet access for us. Nothing momentous had happened in that small town in decades if not centuries. There it was possible to have a reasonably good childhood: Healthy and reasonably wealthy, certainly by global standards. What in hindsight feels like endless summers. Nostalgia past, of course. It could be quite boring. Most of my friends lived a few towns away. The local library was tiny. The movie theater was a general-purpose event location that showed two movies per week, on Monday evenings. First one for children, than one for teenagers and adults. The old man who ticketed us also made popcorn, sometimes. I’m sure he also ran the projector.

Access to new information was slow, dripping. A magazine here and there. A copied VHS or audio tape. A CD purchased during next week’s trip to the city, if there was time to browse the shelves. The internet was becoming a thing, I kept reading about it. But until 1997, access was impossible for me. Somehow we didn’t get the dialup to work just right.

What worked was dialing into two local BBS systems. You could chat with one other person on one, with three in the other. FIDO net made it possible to have some discussions online, albeit ever so slowly.

///

When I grew up there was no expectation of surveillance. Ads weren’t targeted. They weren’t even online, but on TV and newspapers. They were there for you to read, every so often. Both were boring. But neither TVs nor newspapers tried to read you back.

///

A few years ago I visited Milford Sound. It’s a fjord on the southern end of New Zealand. It’s spectacular. It’s gorgeous. It rains almost year round.

If I remember a little info display at Milford Sound correctly, the man who first started settling there was a true loner. He didn’t mind living there by himself for decades. Nor, it seems, when the woman who was to become his wife joined. It’s not entirely clear how he liked that visitors started showing up.

Today it’s a grade A tourist destination, if not exactly for mass tourism. It looks and feels like the end of the world. In some ways, it is.

As we sought shelter from the pouring rain in the boat terminal’s cafeteria, our phones had no signal. Even there, though, you could connect to the internet.


Connectivity in Milford Sound comes at a steep price

Internet access in Milford Sound is expensive enough that it might just suffice to stay offline for a bit. It worked for us. But even there, though they might be disconnected, the temps who work there during tourist season probably don’t get real privacy. On a work & travel visa, you’re likely to live in a dorm situation.

///

The internet has started to track every move we make online. I’m not even talking about governance or criminal surveillance. Called ad tech, online advertisements that track your every move notice more about you than you about them. These are commercial trackers. On speed. They aren’t restricted to one website, either. If you’ve ever searched for a product online you’ll have noticed that it keeps following you around. Even the best ad blockers don’t guarantee protection.

Some companies have been called out because they use cookies that track your behavior that can’t be deleted. That’s right, they track you even if you explicitly try to delete them. Have you given your consent? Legally, probably—it’s certainly hidden somewhere in your mobile ISP’s terms of service. But really, of course you haven’t agreed. Nobody in their right mind would.

///

Today we’re on the brink of taking this to the the next level with connected devices. It started with smartphones. Depending on your mobile ISP, your phone might report back your location and they might sell your movement data to paying clients right now. Anonymized? Probably, a little. But these protections never really work.

Let’s not but let’s be very deliberate about our next steps. The internet has brought tremendous good first, and then opened the door to tracking and surveillance abuse. IoT might go straight for the jugular without the benefits – if we make it so. If we allow to let that happen.

///

The internet, it seems, has turned against us. But maybe it’s not too late just yet. Maybe we can turn the internet around, especially the internet of things. And make it work for all of us again. The key is to reign in tracking and surveillance. Let’s start with ad tech.

Would you live in a robot?

W

Would you live in a robot?
“Would you live in a robot?” One of the lead questions at Vitra’s Hello, Robot exhibition.

“Would you live in a robot?” is one of the questions posed at #hellorobot, an excellent current exhibition at Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany. The overall theme of the exhibition is to explore design at the intersection of human & machine – here meaning robots, algorithms, AI and the like.

Have you ever met a robot?
The entrance to Vitra Design Museum during the Hello, Robot exhibition, February 2017.

It’s rare that I travel just to attend an exhibition. In this case it was entirely worth it as #hellorobot addresses some themes that are relevant, salient, and urgent: How do we (want to) live in an age of increased automation? What does and should our relationship with machines look like? What do we think about ascribing personality and agency to machines, algorithms and artificial intelligence in their many forms?

These are all questions we need to think about, and quickly: They are merely early indicators of the kind of challenges and opportunities we face over the next decades, on all levels: as an individual, as businesses, as a society.

Coupland
One of Douglas Coupland’s Micro Manifestos at Vitra.

The above-mentioned questions are, in other words, merely a lead-up to larger ones around things like agency (our own and the algorithms’) and governance, around the role of humans in the economy. A concrete example, if robots take care of the tasks we now pay people to perform (factory work, cleaning up the city, doing research, generating reports…) and if then (under the current model) only 20% of people would be in jobs, what does that mean, how do we earn a living and establish our role and status as a productive and valued member of society?

This example of robots doing most of the work doesn’t strike me as an abstract, academic one. It seems to be blatantly obvious that we need to rethink which roles we want humans to play in society.

This example of robots doing most of the work doesn’t strike me as an abstract, academic one. It seems to be blatantly obvious that we need to rethink which roles we want humans to play in society. All vectors aim at an economy which won’t require—nor be able—to employ 95% of the working-age population full-time. Yet, at the same time per-capita value creation rises and rises, so on a societal level—big picture!—we’re better off. So either we figure out how to handle high double-digit unemployment rates or we reframe how to think about less tasks requiring humans to do, how to unlock the potential of all the newly freed-up time in the day in the lives of millions upon millions of people, and what we want the role of people to be going forward.

(Ryan Avent’s book The Wealth of Humans seems like a good place to read up on possible scenarios. Thanks to Max & Simon’s recommendation in their newsletter The Adventure Equation. I haven’t read it yet but it’s the top of my to-read pile.)

///

Have you met a robot?
“Robots are tools for dramatic effect.” Bruce Sterling quote at Vitra.

hellorobot provides a great snapshot of the artistic and commercial landscape around robots and AI. From artistic explorations like good old manifest, an industrial robot arm perpetually churning out algorithmically generated manifestos that’s been in ZKM since ca. 2008 or Dan Chen’s much more recent CremateBot which allows you to start cremating the skin and hairs you shed as you go through your live, to the extremely commercial (think Industry 4.0 manufacturing bots), everything’s here. The exhibit isn’t huge, but it’s sweeping.

Dan Chen's Crematebot
Dan Chen’s CremateBot at Vitra.

I was especially delighted to see many of our friends and ThingsCon alumni in the mix as well. Bruce Sterling was an adviser. Superflux’s Uninvited Guests were on display. Automato (Simone Rebaudengo‘s new outfit) had four or five pieces on display, including a long-time favorite, Teacher of Algorithms.

Trainer of Algorithms
Automato’s Teacher of Algorithms at Vitra.

I found it especially encouraging to see wide range of medical and therapeutic robots included as well. An exoskeleton was present, as was a therapeutic doll for dementia patients. It was great to see this recent toy for autistic kids:

Therapy doll
A doll for dementia therapy from 2001 at Vitra.

Leka smart toy
A toy for autistic kids at Vitra.

///

One section explored more day-to-day, in the future possibly banal scenarios. What might the relationship between robots and babies be, how could parenting change through these technologies? Will the visual language of industrial manufacturing sneak into the crib or will robots be as cutesy and cozy as other kids toys and paraphernalia?

My First Robot
My First Robot at Vitra.

My First Robot
Will the visual language of industrial manufacturing enter the baby crib?

///

When the smart home stops
What happens when your smart home stops or fails? Lovely photo project at Vitra.

“Would you live in a robot?” The question was likely meant to provoke. Even though clearly some of the older and more traditional German and Swiss visitors around me seemed genuinely to be challenged to consider their world view by the exhibition, I’d go out on a limb: In 2017 I’m not sure the question is even a bit provocative, even though we might want to rethink how we consider our built environment. We might not all live in a robot/smart home. However, I kind of arrived at the exhibition in robots (I had flown in, then taken a cab) and I constantly carry a black box full of bots (my smart phone). Maybe we need updated questions already, like “How autonomous a robot would you live in?”, “What do you consider a robot?”, or “Would you consider yourself a cyborg if you had an implanted pacemaker/hand/memory bank?”

“What makes a good robot, one you’d like to live with?”

Or maybe this leads us off on a wild goose chase. Maybe we just need to ask “What makes a good robot, one you’d like to live with?” Robot, of course, is in this case used almost interchange with algorithm.

///

hellorobot is great, and highly recommended. However, the money quote for me, the key takeaway if you will, is one that I don’t think the curators even considered—nor should they have—in their effort to engage in a conversation around automation and living with robots.

It’s a quite from a not-so-recent Douglas Coupland project, of all things:

Coupland
One of Douglas Coupland’s Micro Manifestos

“The unanticipated side effects of technology dictate the future” — Douglas Coupland

I think this quote pretty much holds the key to unlocking what the 21st century will be about. What are the unintended consequences of a technology once it’s deployed and starts interacting with other tech and systems and society at large? How can we design systems and technologies to allow for max potential upside and minimal potential downside?

This is also the challenge at the heart of ThingsCon’s mission statement, to foster the creation of a human-centric & responsible IoT.

Go see the exhibit if you’re in the vicinity. You won’t regret it.

ps. For more photos, see my Flickr album. Also, a heads-up based on personal experience: The exhibition opens at 10am, as does the café. There’s no warm place to hang out before nor a cup of coffee to be had, and the museum is in the middle of nowhere. Plan your arrival wisely.

Social Market Capitalism 2.0: How should robots and humans co-exist?

S

After reading a great piece on the role and relationships between humans and algorithms, I went on a little (constructive) rant on Twitter (starting here). Here’s what I said again, as a blog post, for reference reasons and easier readability:

In the debate around how we will tackle the redistribution of work due to more robotic labor I honestly cannot understand: How is the most obvious solution isn’t the most-discussed? That more productivity total, by hugely less people, requires major rethinking. Full-time employment is gone. Never coming back. That’s a problem with 19c/20c thinking, but doesn’t have to be going forward.

We produce more, ie. create and capture more value, it’s just even less equally distributed under the traditional market model. So what? This is a societal decision, we can change that model. It’s been changing since day 1. We just might need some awkward convos.

Basic universal income seems an obvious, comparatively small step, but an unavoidable one. How have we not done this already? But we need to rethink the human’s role in society, too. I think we define our roles too much through our work, salary, status. This is bound to fail going forward. We need alternative models of contributing to society beyond “bread winner”. Again, baby steps: First, incentivize currently underpaid roles, like carers, social work, etc. Then expand from there.

This assumes a world view where most people actually enjoy working one way or another of course. Which I believe. It just partially uncouples salary & status & identity from job title, and couples it more closely with things we choose to do. More choice, more leeway in prioritizing work or free time, in balancing freedom and financials. Anyone who likes to earn more could still work more; this isn’t a post-capitalist approach. It’s social market capitalism 2.0.

Is it really that complicated?

We need to rethink the digital economy

W

c215

Recently I posted some thoughts on a post/supra/decentralized national type of state. It’s mostly a playful thought play, but based on real-world problems.

A little – admittedly, really just a little – closer to home, but in my view really quite important to tackle, are some major overhauls to get our economy & society up to speed for what we can expect over the next decade or two. (I strongly urge you to check out the MIT’s recently announced Initiative for the Digital Economy, some background on the WSJ.)

Easier switch between employment and freelance work

In the short term, we need to fix the hassles involved in switching between full-time employment and freelancing. Long-term jobs are increasingly becoming the exception to the rule. It needs to get much, much easier to switch between various forms of employment – from fix jobs to freelance and back, and also hybrid models, sabbaticals, back to school years, parental leave, etc. Particularly the implications, ranging from social security to health insurance to pension plans, are insanely troublesome. (My experience is based on the German system, but over 3 years or so I’ve switched from freelance to employment to freelance; if you look a bit further back, there’s more full-time employment, and more switches.) There’s no reason but legacy to have it as tricky, and to have all the friction and transaction costs involved in mixing – or moving between – various forms of making a living.

Productivity rises, job numbers sink

For decades, we have been becoming more and more productive, yet job numbers don’t reflect this trend. Rather, thanks to automization, outsourcing and increased efficiency less job are available. This is likely not to be a statistical fluke but rather a long-term trend. Looking at the big picture, this can be a good thing, great even: Our economy is on the rise, we produce more, our society is as productive as ever. In theory this frees up lots and lots of time & energy to do things that don’t, today, get measured as a contribution to society even if they are: elder care, social engagements, art, all kinds of things really. To harvest this extra energy in societally desirable way, we need to make sure that (for lack of a better phrase) “non-traditional work” contributions are awarded the same prestige and priority as going about a nine-to-five job. Today, the social stigma of being unemployed needs to go. And it might be a long shot, but we might need to re-think distribution of wealth. It’s probably the thorniest of problems mentioned here, but as sustainable way forward we might need to give everyone the functional equivalent of a base salary. (Not anything half-assed either, but the real deal. This takes some serious vision and political capital.) Lots and lots of implications that need to be very, very carefully considered. No idea where to start without drifting into some crazy-eyed Marxist stuff (which I don’t think is an option).

Think about it – if you don’t have to work hard to sustain a basic-but-humane lifestyle, and get the option to earn extra on top for any kind of luxury, but are more easily free to explore non-financial gains/ projects/ contributions, too – that’d be quite an interesting evolution of social market economy (soziale Marktwirtschaft is one of the founding principles of Germany after all).

The idea isn’t really new (I haven’t managed to trace it back to its source if there really is one, but it’s been kicking around in some way or another for quite a while). But it also hasn’t lost any of it’s radical new-ness, it’s still fresh so to speak. And it might just be the time to start thinking about it again.

Just to be very, very clear: I’m not talking about abolishing capitalism; it’s a system with massive flaws, but overall we all know how it works and if managed right, it can work quite well. But the flavor we’ve implemented was thought for a different time and hence for a different set of constraints, goals, etc. I’m talking about making sure that contributions to society beyond merely traditionally economic ones are valued on par so that the extra energy freed up by automation & increased efficiency can be harnessed in productive ways.

I wish I could articulate this better. It sounds a bit blurry and all-over-the-place because I’m far from having understood what the real outcome should be. But I think it’s obvious that we need a system where contributions to society count – social, artistic, educational, etc. – at least as much as the kind of economic contribution we tend to incentivize financially through traditional forms of employment.

The last of the Zivis

T

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.