Why Siri doesn’t sing

Having worked professionally in tech, I know that there’s a back-end and a front-end, or in other words, the places that the end-user can and cannot see. You can’t really have a front-end without a back-end, and a back-end is futile without it’s front. Looking at the tech industry itself, you could say that the same dichotomy exists in many different ways. Glaringly, racism and gender-bias are two of them.

The unique thing about Jenkin’s introductory chapter in Convergence Culture is that it allows us to think about the technology industry in two ways: the back-end and the front-end. We know today that if you are a woman or a person of color, you have slim odds finding opportunity in Silicon Valley; on the contrary, however, there are no hoops of bias that a user must pass through in order to hit publish on blog post. This is the beauty of the convergence that Jenkins speaks of when referring to Ithiel de Sola Pool’s Technologies of Freedom:

“Freedom is fostered when the means of communication are dispersed, decentralized, and easily available, as are printing presses or microcomputers. Central control is more likely when the means of communication are concentrated, monopolized, and scarce, as are great networks.”

After watching CNN’s Black in America: The New Promised Land–Silicon Valley, we see through first-hand experience the brunt of systemic bias and racism. I believe that this bias is not merely behind the small detailed intricacies of new software, rather, it is also a driving force behind these new technologies entirely. Why is it that we have movies like Her and Ex-Machina and existing AI technologies that sexualize women? Why are Siri and Alexa so clearly female at all? Personally, I think that if you’re capable of making a technology that completes tasks for you on-command, I certainly think that making a gender-less AI personality is within the realm of possibility. At the end of the day, when people are trinketing around and creating new stuff, there is a person behind all that code with a brain and bias behind it all.

It’s up to us to make sure we keep the internet and new technologies as free and open as possible. I keep thinking about when Emoji’s became more inclusive. There’s a fascinating podcast episode by 99% Invisible which covers the history behind and existing system for creating new emojis. The fact that the first Emoji’s were white and straight illustrates the perspective and bias of it’s creators with exclusivity, but these technologies are not self-correcting, and it’s up to us to steer the course.

Navigate, shmavigate. Who reads maps anymore?

I’m obsessed with maps. I grew up in the Midwest where every summer, my family would pack up our minivan, and for two adventurous weeks, we would explore our country with nothing but a giant atlas, a book on tape, and each other to keep us company. I spent hours studying routes and relationships on a piece of paper that was larger than my body. A few months ago when I was still living in New York City, few things soothed me in moments of rush hour chaos more than gazing at the subway map. It’s the only way to get through the commute.

I still love reading maps. I’m sure my iPhone data usage would report that Google Maps is in my most popular app after eMail and Spotify. Overwhelmingly, I would prefer to trace my finger along fading ink on the surface of a paper fold-up than a cold glass screen, but it’s 2017 and I digress.

After a bit of research, the history behind the web-based map is young and interesting. Was the innovation of web mapping through GIS the relative advantage? I think most individuals would argue that yes, web mapping allows more advantages relative to paper maps. One key difference is that for the majority of time since its innovation, web-mapping has been more than digital cartography, it is real-time navigation. I see the tipping point in this timeline as the instant when navigation became an accessible commodity, beyond an acquired skill. When I was a girl, we read maps. Today, we submit information into a form, and in return receive precise and optimal directions within the context of a map.

In terms of the diffusion of web-maps, let’s first gloss over a very brief timeline, courtesy of Wikipedia:

  • 1989: it all started with the creation of the WWW–thanks Tim Berners-Lee!
  • 1996: MapQuest introduced Address Matching and Route Services (the floor of my very first car was littered with MapQuest print outs)

The terrifying interface above is courtesy of: Computerhistory.org

  • 1997: GeoInfoMapper created JavaMap, which basically put data from MapInfo into a visual “thematic mapping” display for the web
  • 2005: GoogleMaps introduced the first version of GoogleMaps
  • 2007: the iPhone happened
  • 2012: Apple removed Google Maps as the standard application on iOS and replaced it with Apple Maps

I cannot understand the diffusion of the latest version of this technology because it seems as if I blinked and it magically changed my life. Like most components of our continually-updating devices, it just appeared in my iPhone one day and thus became a part of my life. I saw my friends use the application and quickly learned that its functionality cut problem-solving and navigating time in half.

I keep thinking back to the first example within the Everett Rogers work, about diffusing the new idea of boiling water in a Peruvian Village.

“Nelida’s failure demonstrates the importance of interpersonal networks in the adoption of innovation… How potential adopters view the change agent affects their willingness to adopt new ideas”

The conjunction of social systems and diffusion is very tangible today because with the ubiquity of social media, most of us understand how ideas spread. Although they are completely integral, the communication channels (the web, the iPhone) predated the technology of Google maps. It’s as if the web and the hand-held devices chartered the map for web-mapping to lay down it’s tracks. Today, if you have a smart phone in your back pocket, you’re an agent of change.

The above photo is my own, 2011.

Juxtaposing the diffusion of boiling water next to global information systems/web-mapping, the elements of social systems and communication channels seem to supersede the importance of time and the innovation itself. We blinked and couldn’t imagine a life without the innovation of web-mapping.

The paper maps of yesterday will likely decorate the walls of hipster apartments near and far (mine are at least framed), and ultimately fill museums as visuals for a time when navigation involved using paper, logic, and the individual required time for calculating A to B. When paper maps become antiquated, I wonder what we’ll do with the sciences behind these technologies such as cartography and horology. Will there be anyone to fix clocks when we fall offline? Who will guide the way without GPS?

Information technology and humanity

In 1945, Vannevar Bush published a long-winded essay titled As We May Think in The Atlantic Monthly. Bush stresses the importance of record keeping, and expresses his concern for how the progress of science would become lost without it, thus inspiring his memex (depicted below) that would make knowledge more accessible, believing that it could eradicate knowledge retention as an issue. Ultimately, he details the importance of record keeping to a society, and then describes the technical details of a camera that would sit on our foreheads to harvest, store, and link information. It’s basically his vision for information technology… as a wearable accessory!

It’s funny that in 1945 Bush basically envisioned cyclops, because with artists like Neil Harbisson and Google Glass 2, we’re already there in 2017. We’ve got VR, AI, AR and it’s only the beginning. Personally, they mystify yet terrify me at the same time. Certainly, Bush wasn’t thinking of maintaining the integrity of our information and ultimately our knowledge through video game headsets, right? Either way, I wanted to pull this quote because from Bush’s essay because it elaborately describes that humankind is nothing without our tools, our information:

“A mathematician is not a man who can readily manipulate figures; often he cannot. He is not even a man who can readily perform the transformations of equations by the use of calculus. He is primarily an individual who is skilled in the use of symbolic logic on a high plane, and especially he is a man of intuitive judgment in the choice of the manipulative processes he employs.”

Throughout the whole piece, I kept thinking about one of my favorite documentaries, Objectified, by Gary Hustwit. It’s a film about design and the everyday objects that impact our daily lives on a massive level. I’ve watched it maybe 100 times. Check out the trailer below:

In one of the beginning chapters of the film, Alice Rawsthorn discusses innovation through one of the first examples of mass production:

“One of the earliest examples would be the first emperor of China. He was waging more to try and colonize more and more of what would eventually become China. And one of his problems was that each of his archers made their own arrows, and so if, say, an archer died, a fellow archer couldn’t pick up his quiver and start shooting at the enemy, because the arrows literally didn’t fit his bow, and so the First Emperor and his advisors came up with a way of standardizing the design of the arrows so that each arrow would fit any bow.”

We’re innovators; we build upon and build upon exponentially. Looking around at all of the objects I’m surrounded by, there’s a centuries-old story behind each one. But comparatively, the technology of information most certainly has the most interesting story of all.

As we learn from Baron Dennis in his 1999 essay From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technologies, however, would warn us to be skeptical in approaching new technologies and remind us of how easy it is for technology to become obsolete. This bit in particular I thought was a bit ironic:

So procedures for authentication and reliability must be developed before the new technology becomes fully accepted. One of the greatest concerns about computer communications today involves their authentication, and their potential for fraud.

Technology today moves lightning fast, with little to no patience for developing authentication and reliability standards. Facebook learned that lesson the hard way after the 2016 election.

In reflection, I find all of the intuition behind each of the articles to be so spot on considering they were written decades ago. And as we all know, change is the only constant, and the story of information technology is absolutely captivating.

Fire, wheel, internet. Observations on a humanity bathing in the afterglow of the biggest invention in relevant history.

As we all know, necessity is the mother of invention. Looking back on it, did we truly need the internet? Were we ill with want for more connection? Were we at our wit’s end without convenient access to information? In Weaving the Web, I understand that connection and information were the two puzzle pieces Tim Berners-Lee spent years trying to fit together during his creation of the World Wide Web. I found it to be quite poetic, actually.

“In an extreme view, the world can be seen as only connections, nothing else. We think of a dictionary as a repository of meaning, but it defines words only in terms of other words. I liked the idea that a piece of information is really defined only by what it’s related to, and how it’s related. There really is little else to meaning. The structure is everything. There are billions of neurons in our brains, but what are neurons? Just cells. The brain has no knowledge until connections are made between neurons. All that we know, all that we are, comes from the way our neurons are connected” (Berners-Lee, p 12).

He had a hunch that connection and information could fit together somehow, and 30-odd years later, we all understand the vast impact of that concoction–I’m just not certain it was spawned out of dire need. For example, here is a short list of incredible things that people did with wild success before the internet inserted itself into our lives:

  • NASA put a man on the moon and then brought him all the way back down to earth
  • friends met other friends at a specific space in time that was confirmed days prior to the meeting
  • the United States built an atomic bomb, flew it halfway around the earth, and dumped it on Hiroshima, Japan killing approximately 129,000 people
  • mothers assessed weird skin rashes and hoped for the best until they could get their kid in front of a doctor
  • almost everyone put up with boredom

I spent two hours grumbling around my house this morning because I couldn’t remember the word for a flower shop and refused to look it up online. I thought: not a florist exactly but that was close. Could it be farmacy, or is that the name of a restaurant I drove by the other day? Maybe it’s horti-something? Horti-what? Nursery never came to me. My Aunt used it in a sentence before I could remember, and then my ego died a little bit. Did I need the internet? No. Did I need a cup of coffee? Absolutely.

Frankly, I am nostalgic for a time that has never happened: before yesterday and after the internet’s birthday. Basically, I often wonder about today without the internet. We have been granted an extreme amount of ease and convenience, and I wonder what necessity could have birthed us within the last 30-odd years without the internet’s influence. Maybe we would have outsourced the recalling of important dates and information to dedicated companies, where strangers called to remind you of things: 1-800-dont-forget-moms-bday. Or instead of ordering food delivery on your smart phone, you dialed a number and a stranger read a random recipe to you over the phone. You’d never know what you were going to get! The excitement! What mystery!

Today, I worry the internet just makes me bored and stupid. For example, you can go out into the world without knowing how to change a flat tire because there are a myriad of ways to solve that problem should it arise: call AAA, watch a quick video on YouTube, or call your dad in a panic. In 7 Predictions for the Internet, I felt that Jayson DeMers tiptoed around one glaring possibility: we will become the robots. Today, whenever a need arises, we simply press buttons on the computer in our back pocket, and solutions are magically provided. How would that make us any different from robots, my friends? I do not worry that machines will take over our jobs, rather humans will become so machine-dependent, that we will lose our humanity to that necessity. The good news is, regarding my knowledge of the internet, I scored better than 81.8% of the population without the aid of Google, so I’m pretty sure I’m still human.

In terms of the future, and the advancement of technology, you could say I fall somewhere between Bill Gates and Elon Musk in the AI race.

Our future with the internet will be, by nature, unpredictable, but in the meantime, I’m going to Google that phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” and see what information I can find.