Tags: technology

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Wednesday, July 19th, 2017

The magical and the mundane

The iPhone—and by extension, the smartphone—is a decade old. Ian Bogost has written an interesting piece in The Atlantic charting our changing relationship with the technology.

First, it was like a toy dog:

A device that could be cared for, and conspicuously so.

Then, it was like a cigarette:

A nervous tic, facilitated by a handheld apparatus that releases relief when operated.

Later, it was like a rosary:

Its toy-dog quirks having been tamed, its compulsive nature having been accepted, the iPhone became the magic wand by which all worldly actions could be performed, all possible information acquired.

Finally, it simply becomes …a rectangle.

Abstract, as a shape. Flat, as a surface. But suggestive of so much. A table for community. A door for entry, or for exit. A window for looking out of, or a picture for looking into. A movie screen for distraction, or a cradle for comfort, or a bed for seduction.

Design dissolves in behaviour. This is something that Ben wrote about recently in his excellent Slapdashery series: “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.”

Technology tweaks our desire for novelty; but as soon as we get it we’re usually bored. There are no technologies that I can think of that haven’t become mundane.

This is something I touched on in my talk last year at An Event Apart. There’s a thread throughout the talk about Arthur C. Clarke, and of course I quote his third law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I propose an addendum to that:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic at first.

The magical quickly becomes the mundane. That’s exactly the point that Louis CK is making in the piece that Ben references.

Seven years ago Frank wrote his wonderful essay There Is A Horse In The Apple Store:

I have a term called a “tiny pony.” It is a thing that is exceptional that no one, for whatever reason, notices. Or, conversely, it is an exceptional thing that everyone notices, but quickly grows acclimated to despite the brilliance of it all.

We are surrounded by magical tiny ponies. I mean, just think: right now you are reading some words at a URL on the World Wide Web. Even more magically, I just published some words at my own URL on the World Wide Web. That still blows my mind! I hope I never lose that feeling.

Sunday, June 18th, 2017

Beyond Curie—a design project celebrating women in STEM

Beyond Curie is a design project that highlights badass women in science, technology, engineering + mathematics. 

Monday, June 12th, 2017

2001: A Space Odyssey — A Look Behind the Future - YouTube

The following film describes an unusual motion picture now being produced in London for release all over the world, starting in early 1967.

Saturday, June 3rd, 2017

Christina Xu: Convenient Friction: Observations on Chinese UX in Practice on Vimeo

This was my favourite talk from this year’s Interaction conference—packed full of insights, and delivered superbly.

It prompted so many thoughts, I found myself asking a question during the Q&A.

Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

A workshop on evaluating technology

After hacking away at Indie Web Camp Düsseldorf, I stuck around for Beyond Tellerrand. I ended up giving a talk, stepping in for Ellen. I was a poor substitute, but I hope I entertained the lovely audience for 45 minutes.

After Beyond Tellerrand, I got on a train to Nuremberg …along with a dozen of my peers who were also at the event.

All aboard the Indie Web Train from Düsseldorf to Nürnberg. Indie Web Train.

I arrived right in the middle of Web Week Nürnberg. Among the many events going on was a workshop that Joschi arranged for me to run called Evaluating Technology. The workshop version of my Beyond Tellerrand talk, basically.

This was an evolution of a workshop I ran a while back. I have to admit, I was a bit nervous going into this. I had no tangible material prepared; no slides, no handouts, nothing. Instead the workshop is a collaborative affair. In order for it to work, the attendees needed to jump in and co-create it with me. Luckily for me, I had a fantastic and enthusiastic group of people at my workshop.

Evaluating Technology

We began with a complete braindump. “Name some tools and technologies,” I said. “Just shout ‘em out.” Shout ‘em out, they did. I struggled to keep up just writing down everything they said. This was great!

Evaluating Technology

The next step was supposed to be dot-voting on which technologies to cover, but there were so many of them, we introduced an intermediate step: grouping the technologies together.

Evaluating Technology Evaluating Technology

Once the technologies were grouped into categories like build tools, browser APIs, methodologies etc., we voted on which categories to cover, only then diving deeper into specific technologies.

I proposed a number of questions to ask of each technology we covered. First of all, who benefits from the technology? Is it a tool for designers and developers, or is it a tool for the end user? Build tools, task runners, version control systems, text editors, transpilers, and pattern libraries all fall into the first category—they make life easier for the people making websites. Browser features generally fall into the second category—they improve the experience for the end user.

Looking at user-facing technologies, we asked: how well do they fail? In other words, can you add this technology as an extra layer of enhancement on top of what you’re building or do you have to make it a foundational layer that’s potentially a single point of failure?

For both classes of technologies, we asked the question: what are the assumptions? What fundamental philosophy has been baked into the technology?

Evaluating Technology Evaluating Technology

Now, the point of this workshop is not for me to answer those questions. I have a limited range of experience with the huge amount of web technologies out there. But collectively all of us attending the workshop will have a good range of experience and knowledge.

Interesting then that the technologies people voted for were:

  • service workers,
  • progressive web apps,
  • AMP,
  • web components,
  • pattern libraries and design systems.

Those are topics I actually do have some experience with. Lots of the attendees had heard of these things, they were really interested in finding out more about them, but they hadn’t necessarily used them yet.

And so I ended up doing a lot of the talking …which wasn’t the plan at all! That was just the way things worked out. I was more than happy to share my opinions on those topics, but it was of a shame that I ended up monopolising the discussion. I felt for everyone having to listen to me ramble on.

Still, by the end of the day we had covered quite a few topics. Better yet, we had a good framework for categorising and evaluating web technologies. The specific technologies we covered were interesting enough, but the general approach provided the lasting value.

All in all, a great day with a great group of people.

Evaluating Technology

I’m already looking forward to running this workshop again. If you think it would be valuable for your company, get in touch.

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017

Evaluating Technology – Jeremy Keith – btconfDUS2017 on Vimeo

I wasn’t supposed to speak at this year’s Beyond Tellerrand conference, but alas, Ellen wasn’t able to make it so I stepped in and gave my talk on evaluating technology.

Monday, May 22nd, 2017

Are we making the web too complicated? | Seldo.Com Blog

Laurie Voss on the trade-off between new powerful web dev tools, and the messiness that abusing those tools can bring:

Is modern web development fearsomely, intimidatingly complicated? Yes, and that’s a problem. Will we make it simpler? Definitely, but probably not as soon as you’d like. Is all this new complexity worthwhile? Absolutely.

I agree that there’s bound to be inappropriate use of technologies, but I don’t agree that we should just accept it:

Are there some people using a huge pile of JavaScript and a monstrous build chain to throw together a single-pager web site with one box that collects an email address? For sure. And that’s silly and unnecessary. But so what? The misuse of technology does not invalidate it.

I think we can raise our standards. Inappropriate use of technology might have been forgivable ten years ago, but if we want web development to be taken seriously as a discipline, I think we should endeavour to use our tools and technologies appropriately.

But we can all agree that the web is a wonderful thing:

Nobody but nobody loves the web more than I do. It’s my baby. And like a child, it’s frustrating to watch it struggle and make mistakes. But it’s amazing to watch it grow up.

Evaluating Technology | Calum Ryan

Calum’s write-up of the workshop I ran in Nuremberg last week.

Friday, May 19th, 2017

Notes From An Emergency

But real problems are messy. Tech culture prefers to solve harder, more abstract problems that haven’t been sullied by contact with reality. So they worry about how to give Mars an earth-like climate, rather than how to give Earth an earth-like climate. They debate how to make a morally benevolent God-like AI, rather than figuring out how to put ethical guard rails around the more pedestrian AI they are introducing into every area of people’s lives.

Sunday, May 7th, 2017

A minority report on artificial intelligence

Want to feel old? Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report was released fifteen years ago.

It casts a long shadow. For a decade after the film’s release, it was referenced at least once at every conference relating to human-computer interaction. Unsurprisingly, most of the focus has been on the technology in the film. The hardware and interfaces in Minority Report came out of a think tank assembled in pre-production. It provided plenty of fodder for technologists to mock and praise in subsequent years: gestural interfaces, autonomous cars, miniature drones, airpods, ubiquitous advertising and surveillance.

At the time of the film’s release, a lot of the discussion centred on picking apart the plot. The discussions had the same tone of time-travel paradoxes, the kind thrown up by films like Looper and Interstellar. But Minority Report isn’t a film about time travel, it’s a film about prediction.

Or rather, the plot is about prediction. The film—like so many great works of cinema—is about seeing. It’s packed with images of eyes, visions, fragments, and reflections.

The theme of prediction was rarely referenced by technologists in the subsequent years. After all, that aspect of the story—as opposed to the gadgets, gizmos, and interfaces—was one rooted in a fantastical conceit; the idea of people with precognitive abilities.

But if you replace that human element with machines, the central conceit starts to look all too plausible. It’s suggested right there in the film:

It helps not to think of them as human.

To which the response is:

No, they’re so much more than that.

Suppose that Agatha, Arthur, and Dashiell weren’t people in a floatation tank, but banks of servers packed with neural nets: the kinds of machines that are already making predictions on trading stocks and shares, traffic flows, mortgage applications …and, yes, crime.

Precogs are pattern recognition filters, that’s all.

Rewatching Minority Report now, it holds up very well indeed. Apart from the misstep of the final ten minutes, it’s a fast-paced twisty noir thriller. For all the attention to detail in its world-building and technology, the idea that may yet prove to be most prescient is the concept of Precrime, introduced in the original Philip K. Dick short story, The Minority Report.

Minority Report works today as a commentary on Artificial Intelligence …which is ironic given that Spielberg directed a film one year earlier ostensibly about A.I.. In truth, that film has little to say about technology …but much to say about humanity.

Like Minority Report, A.I. was very loosely based on an existing short story: Super-Toys Last All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss. It’s a perfectly-crafted short story that is deeply, almost unbearably, sad.

When I had the great privilege of interviewing Brian Aldiss, I tried to convey how much the story affected me.

Jeremy: …the short story is so sad, there’s such an incredible sadness to it that…

Brian: Well it’s psychological, that’s why. But I didn’t think it works as a movie; sadly, I have to say.

At the time of its release, the general consensus was that A.I. was a mess. It’s true. The film is a mess, but I think that, like Minority Report, it’s worth revisiting.

Watching now, A.I. feels like a horror film to me. The horror comes not—as we first suspect—from the artificial intelligence. The horror comes from the humans. I don’t mean the cruelty of the flesh fairs. I’m talking about the cruelty of Monica, who activates David’s unconditional love only to reject it (watching now, both scenes—the activation and the rejection—are equally horrific). Then there’s the cruelty of the people of who created an artificial person capable of deep, never-ending love, without considering the implications.

There is no robot uprising in the film. The machines want only to fulfil their purpose. But by the end of the film, the human race is gone and the descendants of the machines remain. Based on the conduct of humanity that we’re shown, it’s hard to mourn our species’ extinction. For a film that was panned for being overly sentimental, it is a thoroughly bleak assessment of what makes us human.

The question of what makes us human underpins A.I., Minority Report, and the short stories that spawned them. With distance, it gets easier to brush aside the technological trappings and see the bigger questions beneath. As Al Robertson writes, it’s about leaving the future behind:

SF’s most enduring works don’t live on because they accurately predict tomorrow. In fact, technologically speaking they’re very often wrong about it. They stay readable because they think about what change does to people and how we cope with it.

Friday, April 21st, 2017

Brighton digital companies just did something brilliant… | Declan Cassidy

A write-up of the BrightSparks programme that Clearleft is taking part in.

Each company agreed to help support one local child from a low-income family, on free school meals or with a yearly household income of under £25k.

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

Ghost in the Cloud | Issue 28 | n+1

The rapture of the nerds:

Transhumanism’s simulation theology

Sunday, April 16th, 2017

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

This wide-ranging essay by Nick Nielsen on Centauri Dreams has a proposition that resonates with my current talk about evaluating technology:

Science produces knowledge, but technology only selects that knowledge from the scientific enterprise that can be developed for practical uses.

Then there’s this:

The most remarkable feature of how we got from the origins of our species to the complex and sophisticated civilization we have today is that, with few exceptions, none of it was planned. Technology was not planned; civilization was not planned; industrialization was not planned; the internet was not planned.

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017

Jeremy Keith at Render 2017 - YouTube

Here’s the opening keynote I gave at the Render Conference in Oxford. The talk is called Evaluating Technology:

We work with technology every day. And every day it seems like there’s more and more technology to understand: graphic design tools, build tools, frameworks and libraries, not to mention new HTML, CSS and JavaScript features landing in browsers. How should we best choose which technologies to invest our time in? When we decide to weigh up the technology choices that confront us, what are the best criteria for doing that? This talk will help you evaluate tools and technologies in a way that best benefits the people who use the websites that we are designing and developing. Let’s take a look at some of the hottest new web technologies and together we will dig beneath the hype to find out whether they will really change life on the web for the better.

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

LukeW | An Event Apart: Evaluating Technology

Luke is a live-blogging machine. Here’s the notes he made during my talk at An Event Apart Seattle.

If it reads like a rambling hodge-podge of unconnected thoughts, I could say that you had to be there …but it kinda was a rambling hodge-podge of unconnected thoughts.

Thursday, March 30th, 2017

The Analog Web | Jim Nielsen’s Blog

This is wonderful meditation on the history of older technologies that degrade in varied conditions versus newer formats that fall of a “digital cliff”, all tied in to working on the web.

When digital TV fails, it fails completely. Analog TV, to use parlance of the web, degrades gracefully. The web could be similar, if we choose to make it so. It could be “the analog” web in contrast to “the digital” platforms. Perhaps in our hurry to replicate and mirror native platforms, we’re forgetting the killer strength of the web: universal accessibility.

Monday, March 20th, 2017

Tim Berners-Lee ~ The World Wide Web - YouTube

There’s something very endearing about this docudrama retelling of the story of the web.

Saturday, March 18th, 2017

Apple has given my son a hand! – the surprised pessimist

One of the accessibility features built into OS X:

Using Switch Control, and tapping a small switch with his head, my son tweets, texts, types emails, makes FaceTime calls, operates the TV, studies at university online, runs a video-editing business using Final Cut Pro on his Mac, plays games, listens to music, turns on lights and air-conditioners in the house and even pilots a drone!

Friday, March 17th, 2017

Should you learn [insert shiny new tool]? | Zell Liew

This ties in nicely with the new talk I’m doing on evaluating technology. Zell proposes a five-step process:

  1. Figure out what [insert tool] does.
  2. Figure out what sucks right now
  3. Determine if it’s worth the investment
  4. Learn it (if it’s worth it)
  5. Differentiate opinions from facts

Most of the examples he gives are tools used before deployment—I have a feeling that different criteria should apply when weighing up technologies written directly in user-facing code (HTML, CSS, and JavaScript).