Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Type:Rider and Flappy Bird

I wouldn’t have thought typography could be the subject of a video game, but Type:Rider does just that. The levels are a tour of Western history from the middle ages onward, each corresponding to a different typeface in the context of its era. The Gothic type’s levels take cues from medieval churches while the 1920’s Futura feels like a modern art museum. The player’s avatar is a colon, two rolling dots bound together by some magnetic-seeming attraction. Gameplay consists of navigating through terrain including each letter of the alphabet rendered in the that typeface. The letters are arranged to create interesting geometrical puzzles that make them memorable. The player also navigates through oversized versions of the printing technologies of the day, meanwhile collecting asterisks that unlock brief passages about the key figures and inventions of the time period.

There are a number of features that make Type:Rider stand out. It is highly polished, with beautiful visual environments and suitable thematic music. (Surprisingly the typesetting of the informative passages is often found wanting; perhaps the English translation wasn’t proofed by the original European developers?) The controls are relatively expressive, in that with a few taps the skilled player can move the colon in one of many possible ways. The game has value: it took a team of experienced designers and developers time and money to create it, and the user must expend time and money to enjoy it. But yet, the game has a deeper message. Yes, it’s about typography, but mere type is the means by which we transfer knowledge; typography is the beatification of knowledge. Typography rewards diligence, attention to detail, graphical density, and knowledge of prior work. Typography is the wings on which intellectualism is borne.

Contrast this with the maddeningly weak and imprecise wings of Flappy Bird. Wired does a good job recounting the saga of the infamous iOS game and its creator, Dong Nguyen. Anyone can pick up the game and play it immediately, but playing well is exceedingly difficult: mastery and skill-building are sacrificed on the alter of ease-of-use. Play happens in all-too-brief bouts, which provide instant gratification with no time commitment. No depth of knowledge, skill, or artistic message is ever accumulated.

Papert distinguishes between children programming computers and computers programming children, and this is certainly the latter. Flappy bird conditions one exact response, with no room for exploration or creativity. No justification is given as to why the world must be the way it so firmly is. More concretely, flappy bird is fake difficulty, riding on an artificially narrow method of control. It perniciously makes the smart phone, and the human, less smart.

Dong Nguyen made (and is likely still making) fifty thousand dollars a day off advertising shown to the game’s users. I highly doubt the users (largely teens) are spending anywhere close to that amount of money on the advertised products. Flappy bird generates money but not wealth; like doomed financial products it is built on value that simply isn’t there. Sooner or later, this bubble must burst.

But despite the attention directed towards Flappy bird, it is hardly unique. Only four of the top fifty grossing apps (as of when I checked) are not games (Pandora, Skype, and two dating apps). The rest are games, targeted at the under-20 crowd, driven by ads and in-app purchases (which include the removal of ads). The app store has become Western kids in a gigantic candy store, and this has pushed adults and their fine intellectual cuisine off to the margins. The market has spoken: mass-produced low-quality ad-ridden software for entitled children is what sells, adults and society be damned.

I will quote (again) from Jaron Lanier, You Are Not A Gadget: “Rooms full of MIT PhD engineers [are] not seeking cancer cures or sources of safe drinking water for the underdeveloped world but schemes to send little digital pictures of teddy bears and dragons between adult members of social networks. At the end of the road of the pursuit of technological sophistication appears to lie a playhouse in which human kind regresses to nursery school.”

Even Type:Rider is not immune. It has the requisite Facebook and Twitter integration, though they are less prominent. It is also available as a Facebook game. What is offers, then, is not a completely pure solitary experience but rather a compromise given the nature of the market.

It is said that technology changes quickly and people change slowly, but the reality is more complex. People have shown a remarkable ability to adapt to new technologies, without fundamentally altering how they think or what goals they have. Meanwhile, the face of technology changes, but many ideas remain timeless and fixed, old wine repackaged into new bottles. Furthermore standards and protocols by which devices communicate with each other, once set, become incredibly difficult to change. We are in danger of not changing with technology, and then creating technology that prevents us from changing.

A week without social media

The Jewish holiday of Passover requires adherents to not consume or possess any leaven during its eight days. Leaven symbolically represents excess, to be puffed up and arrogant. As I became increasingly aware of the time I was wasting on social media, I hit upon the mechanism that sites like these use to identify you: cookies. Which are leaven, right? So I decided to spend Passover without Facebook or Twitter.

It started small: I would stare at my phone where the apps had been idly looking to kill a few moments. Instead of needing to be on top of my newsfeeds, I found myself putting my phone away more readily and engaging in what I was doing. I began to notice details in the objects and buildings around me, but human contact proved elusive. Without sifting through other people’s half-baked ideas on an hourly basis, I felt like I had a tremendous amount of free time on my hands. The time I would have spent clicking “refresh” became time I spent walking around campus lost in thought. Unplugging led to a good deal of, not necessarily loneliness, but solitude.

Sometimes details matter, and a focus on trends leads to dangerous generalizations. The problem with social media is that it’s all details, with no underlying story or pattern to cling to. Our brains are taxed by trying to glue these shards together, but no two come from the same whole. Occasionally we manage to create a passable mosaic.

After all this introspection, I came to be more at peace with my religion. There are things that we know to be true, like evolution, and we should promote them. And there are things we know to be patently false, like homeopathy, and we should decry them. But a lot of things fall in the middle, not least of which is the human condition. The most visible parts of religion espouse certainty, but the Passover seder is really about uncertainty. It invites questioning and varying interpretations. Judaism embraces ambiguity and even contradiction. (Especially contradiction.) This is a welcome break from a world of pithy opinions crammed into 140 characters and relationships pigeonholed into a dropdown menu. It’s complicated, indeed.

Is slavery a presence or an absence? On one hand, I still feel that social media distracts us as a society from what really matters. It fragments our thought processes, and our relationships, by prizing efficiency over effort. On the other hand, technology connects and empowers us; without it we regress. Is social media a way to break down the interpersonal walls on campus, or a cause of their existence? Does the spread of information strengthen the spread of knowledge, or short-circuit it?

I have always felt that long-form writing helps me put together my thoughts on factual issues. In writing this piece, I realized that the same is true in the personal realm. True connection means giving people the freedom to think independently and then express themselves to others. Slavery is to uncritically compress and post whatever comes to mind.

Internet Idea Books: Roundup, Review, and Response

What Technology Wants (Kevin Kelly, 2010) is a sweeping history of technology as a unified force which he calls “the technium”. Kelly starts slowly, drawing ever larger circles of human history, biological evolution, and the formation of planet earth from starstuff. His scope, from the Big Bang to the Singularity, is unmatchable. But the purpose of this incredible breadth is not readily apparent, and isn’t for the first half of the book, as Kelly talks about everything but technology. I advise the reader to sit back and enjoy the ride, even if it covers a lot of familiar ground.

In not the first chapter on evolution, Kelly argues that the tree of life is not random, but instead is constrained by chemistry, physics, geometry, and so on. The author points to many examples of convergent evolution, where the same “unlikely” anatomical feature was evolved multiple times independently. For example, both bats and dolphins use echolocation but their common ancestor did not. Kelly is careful to attribute this phenomenon to the constraints implicit in the system and not supernatural intelligence. He argues that, in the broadest strokes, evolution is “preordained” even as the details are not.

Kelly begins the next chapter by noting that evolution itself was discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace independently and concurrently as it was by Charles Darwin. This becomes the segue into convergent invention and discovery, insisting that the technium should be regarded as an extension of life, obeying most of its rules, although human decision replaces natural selection. Technology becomes an overpowering force that loses adaptations as willingly as animals devolve (which is to say, not very).

The premise that technology extends life becomes the central to Kelly’s predictions. He paints a grandiose picture of technologies that are as varied and awe-inspiring as the forms of life, encouraging ever-more opportunities in an accelerating dance of evolution. “Extrapolated, technology wants what life wants,” he claims, and lists the attributes technology aspires to. Generally speaking, Kelly predicts technological divergence, where your walls are screens and your furniture thinks, and the death of inert matter. Like the forms of life, technology will specialize into countless species and then become unnoticed, or even unnoticeable.

Much of what Kelly predicts has already happened for passive technologies. We don’t notice paper, government, roads, or agriculture. But I don’t think that information technology will achieve the same saturation. No matter how cheap an intelligent door becomes, a non-intelligent version will be cheaper still, and has inertia behind it. Kelly claims that such resistance can only delay the adoption of technology, not prevent it. Nevertheless something about Kelly’s book disturbed me. It was wrong, I felt, but I couldn’t articulate why. So I read a trio of books that take a more cautioned view of information and communication technologies. As I read, I asked of them: what has the internet taken from us, and how to we take it back? Continue reading

Connectionless Protocols

The post originally appeared on the Tufts ACM blog. 

It’s a common joke among computer scientists to liken themselves to the machines they work with. While not as prevalent at Tufts as other schools, the language of memory errors or HTTP status codes creeps into our understanding of ourselves and of our social situations. It’s a whimsical combination of metaphor and geekery. ACK?

There are two primary protocols that computers use to communicate with each other across a network. The first is UDP, which is fast and lightweight. UDP is a single packet hurled across the Internet to whatever fate may befall it. TCP is a more sophisticated protocol that makes various guarantees about the message that it is sending.

For one, TCP is reliable, while UDP is not. The term “reliable” has a special meaning in this context: a reliable protocol ensures that the message will get there. TCP is courteous enough to ask for retransmission if it didn’t receive a packet it was expecting. I’d like to apply to term back to human beings talking to each other.

If we put more emphasis on reliable communication, we’d spend less of the conversation talking and more time listening, to make sure we understood everything that was said. If not, it’s as simple as asking “come again?”, and being patient enough to repeat yourself. Ensuring a reliable connection places value on what other people say, which will lead to more friendships and tolerance. Efficiency and courtesy go hand-in-hand.

Secondly, TCP is serialized, which means it tolerates packets coming in out of order. It puts them in the right order before handing them off to the program above it, say, your mail client. UDP is not serialized, so different parts of the same file can arrive out of order.

Relationships used to be serialized. Courtship rituals bare a striking resemblance to network protocols, algorithmic dances of identification, verification, and only then communication. Or something. Serialization has been left on the sticky concrete floor of the frat house basement. If you’ve spent most of your Saturday nights in Halligan, I should remind you that many of our classmates have the inscrutable tradition of making out before so much as exchanging first names. (It’s as insecure as it sounds.) We’ve lost the notion of “not on the first date”.

In fact, we’ve largely lost the notion of dating altogether. Like UDP, hookups are a connectionless protocol, something we do blindly and without preservation of state from one to the next. It would be awfully hard to have a friendship if every time you started talking you had to introduce yourselves. TCP’s solution is the abstraction of a two-way stream of data. This connection must be set up by hand-shaking, maintained while in use, and eventually torn down. Similarly, only by effort and memory can we form lasting relationships and “connections” to other people.

You may remember the final scene of The Social Network, where Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) lazily hits refresh to see if the woman he was dating at the start of the film has accepted his friend request. He has been trapped by his own creation. I think that computer scientists have a unique vantage point in our increasingly technologized world. By understanding the limitations of our machines, we are better equipped to, when necessary, put them aside and have a conversation with other human beings.

Lego my imagination!

I recently happened upon the Gendered Lego Advertising Remixer, which overlays the audio of a Lego commercial targeted for boys with the video of one targeted for girls (or vice versa). It’s meant to say something about gender roles or the advertising industry but Legos are not just any toy; they’re about building things. Legos make engineers, and I can say that firsthand. It may seem that the Remixer could be a springboard to discuss the underrepresentation of girls in STEM fields. I’m reluctant to blog on that touchy topic; for a full sociological treatment, see Margolis and Fisher (2003). Instead, I think the Remixer demonstrates problems with getting children interested in STEM regardless of gender. That is the bigger issue with how Legos are advertised today: they’re not about building things.

Lego’s signature construction mechanic is shown for only about two of an ad’s thirty seconds, as a time lapse. For the rest of the ad, the product might as well not be made of bricks at all. Lego does little to differentiate themselves from a makers of dollhouses, action figures, or other toys made of solid plastic. The models become static, and the building process has a definitive end.

When the models inevitably get dropped on the floor and pieces get lost, the kids want to make something different.  They want to extend and build on what they are given without fear of “messing it up.” Since when is it possible to mess up when playing? Lego constructions don’t need to follow the instructions any more than artists need to paint by numbers.  They’re a child’s rapid prototyping tool, not industrial building materials to follow a blueprint. The quality of a Lego construction isn’t based on how well it reproduces a Platonic form. In fact, it’s not based on the physical Legos themselves at all, but what the kids do with them.

Accordingly, the ads focus on the adventures to be had with Legos. Specifically, they focus on adventures involving the perfectly assembled unit and friends who have purchased companion products. The setting and plot are preordained by professional writers. The kids who buy the sets will lifelessly reenact shadows of the ads, with mouth noises and bedspreads standing in for the dramatic music and rugged backgrounds of the boy-targeted commercials, or the metropolitan feel of Lego Friends.

I spent many enjoyable hours as a child with my sister and a friend battling bipedal Martian spaceships against figures from the completely separate Bionicle series. We extended the limited system using imagination rather than technical performance. The plots went nowhere and everywhere, zigzagging and bouncing with no pre-planned structure. Like the brick creations themselves, our plots were a hodgepodge of disparate ideas, configurable and unique.

The Lego commercials suggest rather strongly that there is only one way to do it. One way to build, one way to play. This is an extremely detrimental idea to the development of young engineers. They may come to see the construction process as a chore, rather than as fun. It robs them of the chance to design their own buildings and stories. The toy that is uniquely able to liberate a child’s creativity has become prepackaged imagination. Madison Avenue is only not taking away opportunities to build something new, but the very idea of building something new.

Excited college students stand around autonomous Mindstorms robots trying to push each other out of the ring.

Thankfully, there’s another side to this story. Tufts has an organization called the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach. The CEEO is known for its large collection of Lego Mindstorms robotics. The robots include sensors and can be programmed in LabView. Although there is a standard robot that includes all the sensors and a drive train, Mindstorms is intended to be flexible. Users are expected and encouraged to modify the hardware and software to best complete a task. These users include both kids in the local community and Tufts students. Fast, agile construction and a fairly sophisticated array of sensors, motors, and software benefit all ages.

The point of Legos is that you can tinker with them: try this approach, see how well it works, and use that knowledge to make a better choice next time. These are exactly the skills that are valuable to an engineer. Yes, there’s four years of course work and plenty on-the-job training to get through, but that’s exactly why engineers need to be highly motivated. The world is pliable, customizable, and hackable. With care and competence, it can be molded into something new and better. Legos should be a child’s first foray into that world, and instill values that will propel him or her for a lifetime.

Everything with moderation

I wrote about the PostSecret app as a place to build empathy by seeing enough anecdotes to form patterns. What I didn’t mention is that, beyond the repetition and non-secrets, there were a few people who outright abused the app. It is, after all, an anonymous photo sharing service, and while I will not feed the trolls rest assured there are plenty. Correction, were plenty: the app was removed the App Store and and uploading new secrets has been disabled. After four months, the PostSecret app is dead, a victim of what Frank Warren calls the “1% of … content that was not just pornographic but also gruesome and at times threatening”.

The app did have a system of moderation. Users could flag any secret they deemed not to conform to the app’s rules of submissions, which would (apparently) send that secret for review and possible removal by a human moderator. Inappropriate secrets would still be submitted and seen by others prior to being removed. As a last-ditch attempt to save the app, the mods “even tried prescreening 30,000 secrets a day,” which was just too many.

Before we dismiss online communities as untamable, let’s look at a success story: Wikipedia. Continue reading

The problem with the internet

Well, one of them, anyway. It’s too anecdotal.

According to an account of uncertain authenticity, Earnest Hemingway once wrote a six-word story:

For sale: baby shoes, never won.

It’s easy to scoff at first, until you delve a little deeper into the noodle incident: why would someone have unused baby shoes and want to sell them? Imagine a devastated father-to-be, all prepared to welcome a child into the world, when his wife leaves him. Or does he kill her in a fit of drunken rage? Or have an unpaid debt to the wrong person, who assaults his wife, causing her to lose the baby? Or perhaps the couple loses all their money in any number of tragic ways, and have to sell their gift of love to their child just to eat? Or myriad other plots? You can create your own characters and plot, embellish them as much as you like, and no one can say it’s not what happened. Instead of writing one story, he wrote hundreds, with classic Hemingway compression. You can unpack so much emotion from just a few words.

On the internet, there are millions of six-word stories. Let’s pick one source of them as a case study. Post Secret is a project conceived of and run by one man, Frank Warren, who asked people to send in anonymous secrets on the backs of postcards. It sounds peculiar, but thousands of people have mailed in a pint-sized artistic confession. When they’re good, the secrets unleash as much empathy as Hemingway’s story, with the added bonus of (ostensibly) being true. When they’re bad, they’re just a fleeting statement of emotionally-charged fact. There are multiple books of secrets published, plus a free sampling every Sunday at postsecret.com. In September, an iPhone app launched allowing users to view and submit their own secrets digitally. Users can “heart” a secret, and the tally is shown to everyone, or upload another secret in reply. Worried about too much of a good thing, I posted one myself: “I’m afraid this app will cheapen the secrets.” Looks like I was right.

Continue reading