Gosh! And I thought I had strong opinions about markup!
Friday, September 1st, 2023
Saturday, August 5th, 2023
Emily M. Bender:
I dislike the term because “artificial intelligence” suggests that there’s more going on than there is, that these things are autonomous thinking entities rather than tools and simply kinds of automation. If we focus on them as autonomous thinking entities or we spin out that fantasy, it is easier to lose track of the people in the picture, both the people who should be accountable for what the systems are doing and the people whose labor and data are being exploited to create them in the first place.
- Stochastic parrots
- Spicy autocomplete
- Mad Libs
- Magic Eight Ball
And this is worth shouting from the rooftops:
The threat is not the generative “AI” itself. It’s the way that management might choose to use it.
Monday, July 3rd, 2023
Quite a few people have been linking to this list on The Verge of what they consider the greatest tech books of all time.
To be clear, this is a fairly narrow definition of technology. It’s really a list of books about the history of computing. But there’s some great stuff in there.
I’ve been thinking the books about computing and technology that I’ve managed to get around to reading, and which ones made an impact on me. Some of these made it on The Verge’s list too, which is nice to see.
Broad Band by Clare L. Evans
I was blown away by the writing and the stories uncovered in “the untold story of the women who made the internet.” Here’s what I wrote when I read the book:
This book is pretty much the perfect mix. The topic is completely compelling—a history of women in computing. The stories are rivetting—even when I thought I knew the history, this showed me how little I knew. And the voice of the book is pure poetry.
It’s not often that I read a book that I recommend wholeheartedly to everyone. I prefer to tailor my recommendations to individual situations. But in the case of Broad Band, I honesty think that anyone would enjoy it.
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
I read this one in 2020, not too long after it came out. In my end of year round-up, I described it like this:
A terrific memoir. It’s open and honest, and just snarky enough when it needs to be.
Close to the Machine by Ellen Ullman
I read this in 2018, many years after it first came out. Here’s how it came across to me:
Lots of ’90s feels in this memoir. A lot of this still resonates today. It’s kind of fascinating to read it now with the knowledge of how this whole internet thing would end up going.
Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu
This book is mostly excellent. But as I wrote when I got my hands on an advance copy, the juxtaposition of memoir and manifesto didn’t work for me:
Abolish Silicon Valley is 80% memoir and 20% manifesto. I worry that the marketing isn’t making that clear. It would be a shame if this great book didn’t find its audience.
The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage
Okay, this isn’t technically about computing, it’s about the telegraph. But it’s got the word “internet” in the title, and it’s a terrific read. Here’s what I wrote when I put it in Matt’s book-vending machine:
A book about the history of telegraphy might not sound like the most riveting read, but The Victorian Internet is both fascinating and entertaining. Techno-utopianism, moral panic, entirely new ways of working, and a world that has been utterly transformed: the parallels between the telegraph and the internet are laid bare. In fact, this book made me realise that while the internet has been a great accelerator, the telegraph was one of the few instances where a technology could truly be described as “disruptive.”
When Jason linked to the list of books on The Verge he said:
I’m baffled that Tracy Kidder’s amazing The Soul of a New Machine didn’t make the top 5 or even 10.
I’m more surprised that this book is held in such high esteem. It has not aged well. I read it in 2019 and had this to say:
This is a well-regarded book amongst people whose opinion I value. It’s also a Pulitzer prize winner. Strange, then, that I found it so unengaging. The prose is certainly written with gusto, but it all seems so very superficial to me. No matter how you dress it up, it’s a chronicle of a bunch of guys—and oh, boy, are they guys—making a commercial computer. Testosterone and solder—not my cup of tea.
Friday, May 5th, 2023
Bosses have certain goals, but don’t want to be blamed for doing what’s necessary to achieve those goals; by hiring consultants, management can say that they were just following independent, expert advice. Even in its current rudimentary form, A.I. has become a way for a company to evade responsibility by saying that it’s just doing what “the algorithm” says, even though it was the company that commissioned the algorithm in the first place.
I’m not very convinced by claims that A.I. poses a danger to humanity because it might develop goals of its own and prevent us from turning it off. However, I do think that A.I. is dangerous inasmuch as it increases the power of capitalism. The doomsday scenario is not a manufacturing A.I. transforming the entire planet into paper clips, as one famous thought experiment has imagined. It’s A.I.-supercharged corporations destroying the environment and the working class in their pursuit of shareholder value. Capitalism is the machine that will do whatever it takes to prevent us from turning it off, and the most successful weapon in its arsenal has been its campaign to prevent us from considering any alternatives.
Thursday, May 4th, 2023
Mandy takes a deep dive into the treatment of altruism in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.
Friday, April 28th, 2023
An exploration of the problems and possible futures of flooding the web with generative AI content.
A great practical website to help you vote tactically in the upcoming local elections.
Tuesday, April 18th, 2023
Writing, both code and prose, for me, is both an end product and an end in itself. I don’t want to automate away the things that give me joy.
And that is something that I’m more and more aware of as I get older – sources of joy. It’s good to diversify them, to keep track of them, because it’s way too easy to run out. Or to end up with just one, and then lose it.
The thing about luddites is that they make good punchlines, but they were all people.
Tuesday, January 10th, 2023
I gave blood yesterday. It was my sixteenth donation.
Yes, that’s a humblebrag. I feel like the gamification of blood donation is entirely reasonable. Levelling up in blood donation feels like the opposite of frequent flyer points. Instead of a growing sense of shame at how your accumulated activity is destroying the planet, you get increasing affirmation that you’re helping others.
Besides, I don’t have Strava, or Peleton, or rings to close, or whatever. I don’t even do Wordle. So this is the only “streak” I can legitimately boast about.
The more I give blood, the more I enjoy it.
I know that sounds weird. Surely having a needle shoved in your arm isn’t meant to be enjoyable?
It’s true that the first or second time you do it, it can feel intimidating, maybe even a little scary. I’m lucky that I don’t have much of an aversion to needles—much respect to those who do, but donate anyway.
But once you’ve done it a few times, it becomes routine. Actually, it’s more than routine. It’s like a ritual.
Not to get all spiritual here when we’re talking about an entirely biological process, but there is something special going on…
You join together with other members of your community. Strangers. People from all walks of life, all of them gathered in one place to do the same thing: sacrifice a small portion of themselves for the greater good.
It’s like a more egalitarian version of most religious narratives. Instead of a single saviour making a grand sacrifice, you get many individuals partaking in their own mini crucifixations. A little discomfort and that’s it. Multiply that by the number of people gathered together and you’ve got a magnificent network effect. Less dramatic than the hero’s journey, but far more effective.
Usually in our society, if you want to do good, it’s tied to money. You inherit wealth or accumulate it through work and luck, and then you can choose to do good by redistributing some of that moolah. The more you’ve got, the more you can choose to give away. So the amount of potential good that can be done comes down to the whims of the people who have the most money.
Giving blood doesn’t work like that. We’ve all got the same amount of blood.
The memento mori that are scattered through the history of human culture are there to remind us that death is the great leveller. Prince or pauper, we all meet the same end. That also applies to our blood. Prince or pauper, we’re all equal when it comes to blood donation.
That’s one of the reasons I like returning to give blood every few months. It restores my faith in humanity. I look around the room and see all these people that I don’t know, but we’re all there to complete our individual rituals. We all contribute the same amount. It’s a very personal choice, but there’s a communal feeling that comes from being with all these strangers who have made the same choice.
Besides, it’s just a nice opportunity to step away from the day-to-day. Bring a good book to read during the waiting periods before and after donation. During the donation itself, you’ve got this time to think and reflect. It’s quite meditative, opening and closing your hand to help the flow. Almost trance-like.
And then you get free biscuits.
That isn’t quite the end though. A few days later you get a text message telling you where your blood will be used. I love that part. It feels like closing the loop.
It’s funny that we often use the language of blood to describe supply chains: arterial networks carrying goods in and out of hubs; the pumping systems that keep society alive. When that text message arrives, it’s like a little bit of you is part of an infrastructure for helping others.
You can find a donation opportunity near you on the blood.co.uk website.
Monday, December 26th, 2022
I love just about every answer that Martin Rees gives in this wide-ranging interview.
Wednesday, November 16th, 2022
- A film acknowledges that some people menstruate
- without any characters being ashamed of it
- or being shamed by someone else (without resolution)
Tuesday, August 9th, 2022
I believe we aren’t nostalgic for the technology, or the aesthetic, or even the open web ethos. What we’re nostalgic for is a time when outsiders were given a chance to do something fun, off to the side and left alone, because mainstream culture had no idea what the hell to do with this thing that was right in front of it.
Wednesday, July 13th, 2022
A fascinating interactive journey through biometrics using your face.
Saturday, June 4th, 2022
The web was born to distribute information on computers, but the technology industry can never leave well enough alone. It needs to make everything into software. To the point that your internet browser is basically no longer a magical book of links but a virtual machine that can simulate a full-fledged computer.
Wednesday, June 1st, 2022
How a writing system went from being a dream (literally) to a reality, codified in unicode.
Tuesday, December 7th, 2021
We are so excited by the idea of machines that can write, and create art, and compose music, with seemingly little regard for how many wells of creativity sit untapped because many of us spend the best hours of our days toiling away, and even more can barely fulfill basic needs for food, shelter, and water. I can’t help but wonder how rich our lives could be if we focused a little more on creating conditions that enable all humans to exercise their creativity as much as we would like robots to be able to.
Tuesday, September 7th, 2021
A profile of Brewster Kahle and the Internet Archive in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Monday, September 6th, 2021
At its core, and despite its appropriation, Solarpunk imagines a radically different societal and economic structure.
Tuesday, August 17th, 2021
Letters to a Young Technologist is a collection of essays addressed to young technologists, written by a group of young technologists.
Wednesday, July 28th, 2021
Rationality does not work for ethical decisions. It can help you determine means, “what’s the best way to do this” but it can’t determine ends.
It isn’t even that great for means.