Archive for the ‘People & Tech’ Category
Just recently I have been preparing a talk that I shall be giving at ACCU 2013 in Bristol. Luckily the Bath & Bristol chapter of the ACCU asked me to come and give a dry run of the talk recently and thanks to their many constructive comments I have just finished tweaking and finishing the talk for the main conference.
In preparation for the talk my main texts have been a combination of Henri Bortoft with his “Taking Appearance Seriously”, Iain McGilchrist and his magnum opus “The Master and His Emissary”, and finally- of more import for the techies among us – another magnum opus from Christopher Alexander, his “The Nature of Order” series (which I shall refer to as NoO!).
During the preparation I have been reading these works primarily in “reference” mode, making notes and actually trying to “study” them more. However, now that the main prep is over, I decided to jump forward to the last of the four books from Alexander. So far I had only got to half way through the second one.
Given the slides I had prepared for the talk, some of which included the titles “The Importance of Energy” and “The Foundation in Play”, I was surprised to see just how well they meshed with Alexander’s approach in his Book 4 of the NoO series.
I was particularly struck by his comments about Chartres cathedral and was desperately trying to relate it to software development when a particular thought struck me between the eyes. Although Alexander never mentioned the word, one of the main drivers that the artisans making cathedrals would have used would have been the LOVE of the job, particularly given the religious context so prevalent at that time.
I then reflected upon the background history of software development and realized that it has usually been the polar opposite of this approach, since its main roots are in the military and past war efforts, particularly WW2 and the work at Los Alamos on the atomic bomb. So I then realized that a major reason why I am interested in this more human approach is in order to counteract the lack of humanity that is prevalent in software development, an easy trap to fall into given the focus on technology, and its associated roots in the military.
I then remembered the root within the word amateur – i.e. doing it for the love of it – and realized that this is an important driver for taking the time to make software development truly become a craft and an art. Thus, in order to ‘heal the Cartesian split’, as I mention in the talk, we need to bring more of this feeling of doing it for the love of it, and this is exactly what Christopher Alexander is driving at. He has a great story about getting his students to paint Easter eggs in order for them to learn how to create buildings with good centres or beings as he is also calling them.
I have included the section entitled ‘Innocence’ here as I feel it says a lot about what is needed to truly be an ‘architect’, whether of a building or of software. But unfortunately I am not usually given the time for such exercises and have had to develop this perspective in the background throughout my career. I suspect this is a common experience. But maybe I am just too much of a dreamer…
Extracted from Book 4 of “The Nature of Order : The Luminous Ground” by Christopher Alexander. pp99-100.
12 / INNOCENCE
It may help for me to describe a class I once conducted, in an effort to improve the students’ ability to form buildings from beings. I first asked each student to give an example of an innocent process of drawing or making an ornament which they had most enjoyed. I was looking for something which had been truly joyful for them, not part of their student training. They gave various answers. As I listened, I noticed that the smaller the examples were the more true – that is, the more innocent they were, the less contaminated. Then one student said, in a very soft voice, that he had enjoyed painting Easter eggs in his childhood. That was something that was pure joy, unaffected by guilt, or by a feeling that he must “do well.” At first I could not hear him. He was shy about it, didn’t want to repeat what he said. I persuaded him to speak a little more loudly, and finally we all heard him say, embarrassed, that he had loved painting Easter eggs.
I felt at once that this love, of all those which had been mentioned, was one of the most pure. It was simple. In that work, there is nothing except the egg and the pattern on its surface, no mental constraints of what one “ought” to do – only the thing itself. No one really judges or censors the outcome – so it is easy and alright, not festering with complicated concepts about architecture when you do it.
So I asked each student to make holes in the ends of a raw egg, blow out the yolk and white, and then paint the egg, decorate it like an Easter egg. I made it clear that they did not have to use the fifteen properties. All I wanted them to do was to make the egg beautiful, to enjoy what they were doing. Here are some of the eggs they painted. The shapes and spaces in the ornaments took their shape, and became what they are, just to be beautiful and to have the maker’s depth of feeling visible and shining in them. That was the only principle which governed them. And this, I believe is what one has to do to make a serious work. Naive as it sounds, it is this, too – I believe – that the great traditional builders did.
The students’ other architectural work improved greatly once they understood that making a good building is more like the joyous work of painting an Easter egg than like the practical task of being an “architect.”
If you have seen my earlier post you will know that I am concerned about our lack of awareness of the subtle effects of computer technology on our lives. My deepest concern is about the effects on young children so in this post I am going to talk about the boundaries my wife and I imposed on computer (and TV) use within the home and some of our experiences.
I have been a computer professional since before the early days of the “Personal Computer” boom when we could hardly contemplate that everyone would have their own computer! Many certainly did not even dream of the phenomenal proliferation of “microprocessors” that would take place. That was the word that was used a lot: microprocessor – which highlighted the fact that it was just a super-chip for the electronic nerds like myself. You hardly hear the word mentioned nowadays, but they are still there, usually called just “processors” although thousands of times faster and more powerful and with more fancy names like Core i7 or Phenom.
I also remember sitting at a screen (which was not integral to the computer) typing in commands well into to the late hours at work. But at that time of day I was using an early computer game called “Adventure”, and if you really got into a pickle you would just keep getting the response: “You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike.”, regardless of the command you typed. Such things used to happen at work since that was the only place where you had enough tech to run the games program. Remember no Personal Computer – or PC – yet!
So I was aware from the early days about the addictive nature of this particular beast. Not only was the game playing addictive, but the programming was (and is) addictive. 4 hours can pass in the blink of an eye if you get “in the zone”. According to folks like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the book “Flow”, this is because so much attention is required for the task that we do not have enough attention for noticing the passage of time. This is a central facet of computer technology. It sucks in your attention. No wonder there are social problems. How can you give attention to other people if your computer or phone is taking it all? But I am getting ahead of myself…
Back to home life – my awareness of this addictive nature of technology was shared by my wife and we both decided that it was inappropriate for our young children to use them. I know a lot of the world does not agree with me (yet!), and we knew that we could not stop them playing with computers at their friends’ houses, but we decided on the following rules:
Rule 1: No computers/mobile phones/electronic games AT ALL until the children were 12 or 13.
Thats right – none. Occasionally my work would require me to bring one home, but this was closed away in the box room and the kids were not allowed near it. Especially NO COMPUTER GAMES. Of course when they went to their friends houses they did have games, but in our house it was traditional toys: wooden train sets, building blocks, Lego and so on. [Also, due to our involvement with the local Steiner school we preferred natural materials over plastic. Hence our preference for wooden toys. I currently think plastic toys are ok, but the wooden ones have a nicer feel.]
Well the kids seemed to be ok with not having computers – but the next rule definitely caused complaints…
Rule 2: No TV.
Eventually we would watch DVDs once the children were 10 or so, but NO TV. And no DVD watching in the bedroom. In fact this was when we got the first family computer in the house to watch the films. If we wanted to watch a film we would congregate around it and have our evening sandwiches watching the film as a family. Why only films? Mainly to place a boundary around our viewing – with TV it is too easy to keep on watching just the next programme, and the next, and the next, and so on… We still have no TV despite me working in the business, and my wife and I are quite happy with that state of affairs.
So what about our experiences with this regime?
Certainly there was some complaining from both our daughter and son about how all their friends had these games, or could watch TV. But we were quite firm and simply said something like: “Yes I know my loves, but we don’t agree with that for you at the moment.”
As I said above, the games issue was not a problem, possibly because (a) I was so sure it was a bad idea and was very firm about it, or (b) they really enjoyed their own games that they would make up themselves. They both have wonderful imaginations and we have many happy photos of them playing without a computer in sight.
The “No TV” was more difficult especially as we would go to their grandparents and they would be allowed to watch TV or a video. This was why we introduced watching family films at around 10 years, although with such great imaginations we had to be careful about the content, even though they were age-appropriate films and seemed innocuous to an adult, the children could get quite scared by some scenes. I think adults too easily assume that the consciousness of children is very similar to their own.
There is an important story about our experience related to the “No TV” rule:
One day a friend of the children came around to play and had a shock when he could not find the TV! He was quite bewildered. Meanwhile our children got stuck in and started putting the wooden train set together. He just sat and quietly watched what they were doing, initially without taking part, until my son and daughter pulled him in and started showing him how to play. I was amazed and later found out that at home he was allowed unlimited access to the video player and would keep rewinding and replaying his favourite scenes over and over again. This boy had partially lost the “knowledge” of how to play! In the past this would have been considered a pathological problem, and I am convinced this is becoming more of an issue for the children of today.
If we fast-forward to the present day, both kids are now at university, both have their own laptops, both have them in their own bedrooms, both watch DVDs in their bedrooms. It is now a different phase of their life and they need to be part of the current culture for it is to be their culture. We will see how it develops.
But perhaps some concluding thoughts:
Boundaries must be placed around our use of such gadgetry and in writing this post I have come to see that it is all related to Attention.
The Boundary Problem is giving rise to The Attention Problem.
Our social human communications should not take second place to our electronically mediated communications. You can see an earlier post where I talked about some of the problems inherent with the latter.
Attention is a special thing that we give to the world. Currently we are giving too much attention to our machines, when we need to give more of it to our fellow humans.
At last the mainstream computing world is beginning to catch up with my warnings about unbridled technological use. The latest “Communications of the ACM” has an article entitled “Living in the Digital World” about the effect of gadget use on people’s social behaviour.
I have been a member of the ACM since 1986, having managed to get one of the early super short sexy email addresses ct(at)acm(dot)org so beloved of Unix types. Usually I have been severely unimpressed by most articles from the ACM folk about the existence of any problems with technology use, let alone a balanced view on what those problems might be. Most press has been heavily for technological use, even down into Kindergarten, with what they call the K-12 curriculum.
Oh dear me.
As someone who has programmed computers since the mid 70s I can tell you that coding for this stuff definitely does affect your social skills. I am not your usual uncommunicative nerd type – I like to think that I have quite good social skills – well – as long as you don’t get too close! What I have noticed is that the necessary criticality required to do the “day job” can spill over into your close relationships. This was a primary influence that led to the break-up of my first marriage, although of course as ever there were faults on both sides. But bringing my critical nature home definitely adversely affected my first wife, resulting in her developing allergies galore. My favourite anecdote is that apparently most of these allergies disappeared within a month of me leaving.
When I found myself doing the same thing again in my second marriage, even I was not stupid enough to think that it was all the other person’s fault. I have now toned down my critical nature when at home and my kids, now of University age, are not backward in coming forward to tell me to “Chillax”. After having realised the problem existed I was extra watchful of myself during their early years and my wife and I have definitely been “good-enough” parents – or so the kids seem to think – honest!
[A problem with parenting is that it is too easy to try so hard to definitely NOT make the same mistakes our own parents did that we "slot-rattle" to the other end of the spectrum and guess what... the effect on our children can be similar to what we wanted to avoid. It seems to be a psychological law.]
So why do I call this issue of technological use The Boundary Problem?
Lets look at a number of places in my own behaviour where I did not have appropriate boundaries:
Without realising it I brought the thinking techniques from work back to the home.
I now know that the highly critical thinking required for software work must be heavily constrained within a close relationship. Of course we need some critical thought, especially if we are parents, but – as a teacher once said to me – there is value in developing a “Nelson’s Eye” and not chasing every little thing. This is easier said than done, especially when it means trying to respond rather than react to a situation that is pressing your buttons!
I was not aware of the effect of programming on my psyche.
This is a biggie and applies to almost every computer professional. In my early years it never crossed my mind that there could be a problem. Soon after the realisation hit me, I went to a computer conference and ran a session to discuss the personal aspects of being a software developer. You should have heard some of the comments! “Navel gazing” was the least abusive one. It is understandable since most technical types like to play with the toys and gadgets. Nowadays things have changed a small amount and with more “techies” you can see the penny starting to drop. I think this is mainly due to what we call “Agile” software development techniques, where you really need to focus on your programming process as well as your technical knowledge. When recruiting programmers the question “Are they aware of how they learn?” is as important as “How good is their technical knowledge?”. If someone cannot take critical feedback it can be very difficult to have them on a software team.
Of course the drive to earn more money just reinforces the “boundaryless” behaviour. You cannot expect companies to control their call on their employees’ time.
Another interesting observation is that when I was younger the gadgetry was much more enticing to me than it is now. I have spent far too many late nights programming computers into the early hours of the next morning to only see the glamorous side. You may see a nice phone. I see just how many hours coding are required to make it work well.
Well that is a small view from the inside of the industry.
In the next post on this topic I will talk about how we as parents dealt with The Boundary Problem at home: A house without computers or TV!
I have just been watching yet another TED talk about the disconnect between humanity and the world. The speaker was quite angry at times and, as usual, I found myself feeling uneasy about such one-sided anger. However later in the talk she also pointed out that the good and the bad go together, which showed she had a more measured response, and I felt her anger could then be used in a positive way. Until we get the disconnect in ourselves dealt with, it is difficult to make much progress with our disconnect at a local level, let alone a global level.
Since I had just returned from the flying club this weekday evening, my thoughts strayed onto my flying – of course! This evening I don’t have any photos, just my thoughts. It was just one glider flight. Only 6 minutes. Overcast conditions. Winch launch to 1300ft, followed by some bimbling around before getting into the circuit and sideslipping down on the approach rather than just simply using the airbrakes.
After having left home at 7pm, I was back by 9:15pm, and then took the dog for a walk. On the walk I was looking at the cloudy sky, which by now had some lovely red in it as the sun set, and I spontaneously started laughing. This was just like I have done when flying on one of the longer daytime flights, and it surprised me. What on earth was going on?
I realised I felt more complete, more connected to the world by having had that 6 minute flight. From the ground I was not just looking up at the clouds as I would normally – I had been up there! I had seen their shapes, experienced their air currents, flown around their wispy fingers. I had connected with the air currents that had started thousands of miles away, no matter how mundane they may seem when they arrive in this country.
I felt I had launched myself into the air and touched the world.
This experience – this connection – turned what was just a normal, “standard”, day into a beacon in my memory.
As I reflected after watching the TED talk by Eve Ensler (author of The Vagina Monologues), my mind returned to a chat I had with someone who had returned to gliding after having been doing a lot of sailing. He said he liked gliding better because you had only yourself to blame if you didn’t gauge the weather well and didn’t complete a cross country flight as planned.
To be a good glider pilot you need to train, but you must also connect with the sky and its variations. And when you make this connection, you get the chance to feel complete, because after all you are a being of this world.
No wonder I was laughing! I felt part of the world, and know I will sleep well tonight and sigh contentedly as I lower my head to the pillow.
Once again, a happy man, and feeling lucky to be alive.
I have recently witnessed a true spectacle and Grand Day Out – with apologies to Nick Park.
I was lucky to see the British Formula 1 Grand Prix at Silverstone, followed by a reflective evening thinking more about the relationship between the human and machine sides of the whole car racing spectacle.
The company I work for has been sponsoring the Formula 1 Virgin Racing Team this year and I luckily got one of the tickets for the British GP on Sunday, care of Virgin hospitality. It was also a day to see what my new camera could do!
Timo Glock of the Virgin Racing Team. Tricky to get the shot with my digital camera due to button delay. Only just got the front of the car.
I must first confess that I am not a die-hard F1 fan. Like many others I have watched it on TV, but have never gone to see it in the flesh. The last time I saw any motor racing was when I went to see some karting race day at Blackbushe, having raced karts there myself in the late 1980s.
At Silverstone I was mainly struck initially by the friendly crowd atmosphere at the track. It seems that the british fans have a special family feeling to the sport. And during the race when the british drivers go by the atmosphere is particularly electric. Though normally a fairly pensive sort I, like others, definitely got carried away by Lewis Hamilton’s progress throughout the race, and at certain points found myself jumping to my feet and shouting myself hoarse as the whole crowd rose to cheer him along. Crowdthink perhaps, but harmless enough in this case and quite a fantastic feeling.
Lewis Hamilton blasting past after the rain had stopped.
I was in the “Club A” stand which gave us a direct view of the final tussle between Hamiton and Massa for 4th place at Club Corner. Everyone
in the surrounding 3 or 4 stands were on their feet as Hamilton managed to fight his way back to keep 4th place. Hence the following seemingly silly photo of a bit of his car left on the track after the contact between them.
OK OK. A gratuitously silly picture of part of Hamilton's car on the track after the bump with Massa.
Before the race a great display, as ever, by the Red Arrows brought a further element of British Pride to the proceedings. I even managed to get a half decent shot of them.
A lucky shot of the fantastic Red Arrows with landing lights on but no undercarriage down!
So what were my reflective thoughts? In the evening the Virgin hospitality was very good and extended to having a viewing of the film “Senna”
, which prompted my gray matter to mull over a number of points.
Firstly, it seemed to me that the brazilian driver drove from a place that was strongly human, and it made me think about Lewis Hamilton. Though such comparisons are odious, I do think there is a similarity in their styles which explains why they could draw such a response from the crowd. My best word for it is that Senna drove, and Hamilton drives – from the HEART. Despite all the surrounding amazing technology, their humanity is visible in their driving style. I believe this can be said about other drivers too – but I am relating to these two drivers in particular.
Both had their origins in kart racing. Hamilton, like Senna, has an aggressive style of driving which I believe shows his passion to win. This style can give problems sometimes – for instance I can see Hamilton struggling with the current Formula 1 tyre regime. I thought this was noticeable this weekend when Vettel was attempting to get past Hamilton. Vettel didn’t get past and came in early to get a tyre change. Was this possibly because he was having to drive more aggressively at such close quarters to match Hamilton? Only he knows.
However, back to my main focus. I found that this situation of driver passion and mastery related to some of my thoughts about the interaction between the human being and the technology.
As I have noted before: The technology amplifies our capabilities. Thus it requires more skill, judgement and mastery. Any small mistake is amplified into a big mistake, and particularly so in motor racing. The technology can also mask and eclipse the human being behind it.
Yet here we witness these sportsmen mastering the technology, but more importantly, in this mastering of the are mastering themselves. It is this all too human struggle that is so compelling, especially when they succeed, and especially if we can see and feel the struggle with them. In this case Hamilton’s drive from 10th position on the grid to 4th or 5th, and in the rain, was just elating. No other word for it. I must also mention that Button also drove really well until having an abortive pit stop.
I wish all the drivers a safe battle with their opponents, and also, a constructive struggle with themselves.
Too many VIPs. There was an almost constant and noisy stream of helicopters coming in and out through the whole day.
The fans in their Sunday best on the track after the race. There were at least 100,000 people at the GP. Not all countries get people on the track afterwards.
Charles trying to get all arty farty with his photography of the side of the stand.
The title is not a misprint. I do not mean Tech-Aware. I mean Tech-Awake. Here is a little story and some thoughts:
Last Wednesday I was driving home from work and encountered an illustration of the problems of trying to set appropriate rules for traffic.
A High Energy Story
The road in question was a connecting road through an estate. It had a 30 mph speed limit and there was a barrier in front of the opening of a path. I was about 200 yards away from the path when I saw some children walking out from it and congregating next to the barrier. Some of them had bikes and I could see there was a possible hazard. Although the speed limit was 30 miles an hour, I decided to reduce my speed to 15 miles an hour. Sure enough when I was about 50 yards away from the barrier, a high energy child came whizzing out from the path like a particle shot from an accelerator and zoomed out across the road on his push scooter to the other side. All without looking for traffic coming from my direction. At 15 mph it was no problem to stop, leaving about 25 yards between me and the young boy in question.
This is not a rant about the children of today or the lack of parental control. Children bring life to the adult world and this boy certainly had plenty of it! I find myself wanting to celebrate that life.
I would rather question our indiscriminate and mostly unconscious use of powerful technologies that in truth we have less control over than we would imagine. A mantra I have is that accidents happen due to bad judgement. When a bad judgement coincides with the use of a powerful technology, such as a car or aeroplane, the situation is ripe for a tragic outcome.
So let me assess the situation I am in as the driver above:
Firstly : Technology amplifies my existing capacities, or gives me new capacities. Cars allow me to travel faster than walking; Aeroplanes allow me to fly (Wonderful!); and a final example: Computers amplify my thought – well a certain type of thought anyway.
Secondly : I can make mistakes. I am not a machine. I would not want to be a machine – a point of view that I believe confirms my sanity! Like our young children, making mistakes can bring life to our world. I enjoy musical improvisation where frequently a mistake can be turned into a beautiful thing.
So what am I to do?
Time to Wake Up
I have wanted to publish this post because I think that our use of technology is asking a fundamental question of us. It is asking us to become aware and most of all to WAKE-UP in our use of these tools.
The reason why this is so important is that when using a car, aeroplane or computer it is too easy to have too much trust in the system and frequently we go to sleep in some way. We may fall asleep at the wheel, rely on buggy fly-by-wire systems, or let computers (try) do some job we would be best doing ourselves.
So here we are – going to sleep, when we need to be waking up.
With flying it is blatantly obvious just how important it is to be careful. All you need do is look out of the window to the ground thousands of feet below while you are trusting the engine to keep on working. This is why as a pilot you are expected to learn a lot about the aeroplane and its systems, far more than you are expected to learn about car mechanics.
I have heard it said that the best way to make a car driver safer when driving around is to put a 6 inch knife blade on the steering wheel pointing towards the drivers chest! Hmmm. Not too sure about that but I can see the point. (Pun intended )
Would it be possible to work at holding that awareness of how powerful a machine you are using and to bring your awakeness up to meet the situation? I know I can do it when flying and I do my utmost to do so in the car. Though I can look back to the consequences when I have not done so and have felt especially stupid in those moments…
A Question to Ponder
Well there are some thoughts to consider and this time I will leave you with a question…
Is it asking too much for people to become more awake in their use of technology?
Well it has been a long while since I last posted here, and for that please accept my apologies, but there have been good reasons. I have been re-assessing life somewhat. I am hesitant to call it a mid-life crisis, since it feels like it has been happening for most of my life!
One of the problems of having an inquiring mind, a curious mind, an analytical mind, is that you tend to deconstruct everything, i.e. you pull it apart. Sometimes there need to be boundaries as to what you will and what you will not pull apart. I must confess I have had problems with where to place those boundaries. And I think I am not alone in this. As I have mentioned before, the puzzle becomes the thing ,and if you have an analytical bent, you can easily forget why you wanted to solve the puzzle in the first place, or maybe sometimes you don’t even know, which means you are usually doing it just for fun.
The impulse to re-assess has come from a number of directions and has a lot to do with a dawning realisation about just how damaging this sort of mind can be.
Firstly has been my attendance at a Science conference in Stourbridge on a rainy weekend in late February (see footnote 1); secondly I have recently started reading what I am finding an inspiring management book called “Theory U” by Otto Scharmer (see footnote 2); and thirdly an article recommended by a friend about a breathtaking display of technological hubris by neurology professor, Henry Markram at the Ecole Polytechnique in Lausanne (see footnote 3).
So what on earth is it that pulls all these threads together and is giving me such a hard time? Well… deep breath… I have been finding it harder and harder not to worry about various environmental concerns and bury my head in the technological sand, saying that we will be able to find solutions to the issues coming our way. A tipping point was when I watched a TV program about James Lovelock originally broadcast in April 2010 (Episode 2 of the “Beautiful Minds” series). Here is a man who is a great polymath and a scientist who is quite happy to be on the outside of the mainstream, pointing out the inherent problems of working within mainstream science at this time.
These different threads have led me to the point where I feel very strongly that there are not just limits implicit in the current mode of thought we have, but that there is a fundamental flaw that is causing wide scale havoc with our environment.
Favourite Metaphors, Quotes and Insights
Thanks to the minds of various giants I like to think I am able to stand on their shoulders and have assembled here some of my favourite thoughts from them that, together, encapsulate some of what I am going on about.
J.W. Goethe: Life is a Conversation. Ah yes, the wonderful idea of Delicate Empiricism.
David Bohm: Thought as a System which creates the world and then says “I didn’t do it!”. So our collective thought is creating organisations which are prisons, and then we can blame the “system” for all the problems, which, remember, we have created.
Rudolf Steiner: The problems of Dualism and the terrific difficulty of getting to Monism (which I link to a holistic way of seeing), though Henri Bortoft helps…
Henri Bortoft: We cannot know the whole in the same way as we know a thing.
This is worth more words here: The whole is not a thing. The way to the whole is through the parts. It is not to be encountered by stepping back and taking an overview. The whole is to be encountered by stepping into, and passing through, the parts.
Couple these ideas with the realisation from my own experience of how difficult it is to recruit competent, thoughtful, software developers and perhaps you can see why I am going through a rather angst-ridden period.
So I have now come to realise that we must must must change the way we collectively think. Obviously this requires us to individually be more clear in our own thought, but there are issues of social technique that we need to learn, which I believe are key to how we turn this around. Now here is a kicker, there is a major link with the whole Risk Averse rant I usually bore friends with. The trouble with all this tech is that there is a risk of letting it do the thinking for us.
My favourite example is the use of a satnav. I hate using a satnav that is telling me which way to turn. I once tested one and found its route choice to be flawed at best. No. I will choose the route thank you very much, and I will use the machine as a very useful map follower which traces where I am on the map. This is exactly what pilots are recommended to do when flying with a GPS. This is a prime of example of how to consciously use the technology.
So… the link to risk aversion. Well if you do not consciously use the technology, you stop thinking. This is comfortable, but in the end, dangerous. It is also very convenient for any government. Since to have a population who are quite willing to follow orders is just fine by them. Risk aversion also puts you in a comfort zone. Again this means you stop thinking. Which is of course tied up with existence , as Descartes realised:
I think therefore I am…
And thats enough for now.
See you soon.
Thanks for reading.
1: This was Science from an anthroposophical perspective (the Steiner lot if you don’t know what the word means). I co-presented one session about the “Conscious use of technology”. The conference in general was a positive experience that has started me tentatively re-approaching some of Rudolf Steiner’s ideas. In preparation I read Paul Emberson’s book called “From Gondishapur to Silicon Valley” which I found a difficult read as I felt it was rather too evangelical about just how nasty our present computer technology is. In recent days I have come to have a better view of this, but more about that in a later post.
I have found that, so far, the book called “Theory U” by Otto Scharmer is an inspiring read. It is early days as yet since I am about one third of the way through, but his insights from a personal perspective stop it being a dry book, for me at least, and I can relate to a lot of what is being said. His drive is to get to understand why we carry on doing things that are so destructive, and don’t seem to be able to change the results.
A close friend sent me a link to an article in the Daily Mail about Prof Henry Markram trying to make a conscious computer system. As far as I can see this is all an effort to get some more funding and investment. His approach is breathtakingly short sighted and is yet another instance, to me, of someone playing with their toys.
In a previous post I noted that an inordinate amount of energy has been put into developing computing technology and especially software.
The question of “Why?” has always fascinated me.
For the doomsayers among us, certainly we can see that the current computer has come directly out of warfare. Just go back to Los Alamos, von Neumann, the atom bomb and so on, let alone the very early technology to allow rapid ballistics calculations. But here I want to deal with the more personal side to it.
So just what is happening here with the people who become programmers? Let me give a quick overview of some of the reasons that make programming enjoyable. Then I will expand on the reasons individually in subsequent posts.
Flow: The Puzzle hook…
Perhaps this is the easiest reason to understand for a non-programmer. The drive that causes people to do crosswords, sudoku, chess, rubik’s cube, etc etc, is one of the main reasons that programmers spend hours upon hours working at a computer without noticing the amount of time that passes. The psychology professor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, calls this experience “Flow”. It provides us with an intimate experience of order, which can be really absorbing, especially if we experience the world as chaotic. And as if you couldn’t guess, there are links between this and culture, and even religion. No wonder good programmers are known as “gurus”!
The Creation hook…
When you start to develop your first programs, they are small and you can very quickly create a little application that is a calculator, a calendar or some such thing. The feedback between having the thought and making it concrete in a computer in some way is pretty immediate. It is at this point that you either get bored at the pedantry of programming, because the comma must go here and the semi-colon here. If so, then in exasperation you move on to other pastimes. But if you get it (a favourite term being “grok” it), then you’re hooked and will probably move on to more and more ambitious projects, possibly culminating in a career in software. Good Luck!
The Control hook…
This is related to the first mentioned hook of Flow. By writing an application you are creating your own miniature world over which you have total control. Sure, you have to learn the language, but you are solving a problem, thinking of the solution, and then putting the results of this thinking into the machine. As long as you follow the strict rules, it wont answer back or argue you with you. The perfect slave. You then become the master. At its best this is not all bad, developing mastery requires discipline and attention to detail, not necessarily bad qualities.
The Elegance hook…
This one usually gets you a bit later on in your involvement with computing. Really good software development requires the minimal amount of code to perform the required operation. However, it is very very easy to write a sprawling program that is 10 or even 100 times as big as it needs to be, and alas, usually due to time constraints, bad specifications, and of course bad programmers, a lot of professional software is like that. To trim it down requires time. But when you do this you find yourself getting a huge amount of satisfaction from producing an ‘elegant’ solution. The minimum amount of typing for the maximum function. I have coined the term “Japanese Garden Software” for this type of code and it is a major drive for any self-respecting professional programmer. (When is a Japanese garden not a Japanese garden? When removing one more rock or plant would stop it being a garden)
So. That should do for now. In the next post I will elaborate more on the “Flow” hook. But first I need to dig out my notes I made from reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book.
Be with you soon…
“Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
This post is a call to the computer professionals among us to be more aware about computer mediated communication issues:
Have you ever thought why email communication so easily descends into conflict? Is it something we should just accept and get on with? Or can we be rather more in control of the situation?
These questions have bothered me for quite a while now. I believe that we could become better masters of the situation. I present a working hypothesis in this article about what happens during a conversation. I first presented this as a “Lightning Talk” at ACCU2009 and was encouraged by the response which, along with some other subsequent insights, has prompted me to put pen to paper, or rather, fingers to keyboard. Some of the conclusions turn out to be fairly surprising.
Why Should We Care?
I start from the position that as technologists we should be more aware of how electronic communication media can affect human discourse. This becomes more of an issue because we are likely to be a reference for lay-people who have problems with such communication. The trouble is that although we are technologists, the questions raised are primarily psychological.
During a conversation, here defined as occurring between a number of people, (I don’t believe machines can converse, but that is another story) I suggest it is a very rare occurrence for us to talk directly to the “real” other person. We form an image of the other person and communicate with that image. It is then the reduction in the congruence of this image with reality that can cause problems.
It is this image that I call the “Communication Shadow” and it is formed by a combination of our own psychological projections and the various miscommunications and errors made by the other speaker. The greater the discrepancy between this Shadow and the “real” other person, the more chance there is that the conversation will descend into conflict.
The Available Media
So what does this have to do with computing? I have experienced that the various types of electronic communication media will affect human conversation differently. So lets look at some differing modes of communication:
1. Face to face
The best mode of communication we can experience, where we can continually pick up subtle cues: body language, facial expression, as well as the timbre of the voice. Of course it can still be difficult. Something I experience in married life! Even after many years I can still fall into some of the old traps, usually culminating in having the last words, namely: “Yes dear”. I am sure there will always be a job for counsellors. With face to face conversation the Shadow we are creating is (or should be) getting continually updated and modified to match the other person. Conversations in the bar can be hilarious just because we can laugh about how different the shadow image is from the real person, although usually the alcohol will help things move along smoothly.
2. Video and Audio
I have in mind the current set of video conferencing systems which are so useful for long distance communication. Although problems with the video/audio synchronisation can make for a stilted conversation, this mode of communication works very well. There will, however, still be missed cues. Though the image of the other person is important I think that what and how the other person speaks is a greater help in adjusting the Shadow image we have of them. But I would advise caution if you think that there are absolutely no problems with this medium. I have worked in the TV business for many years and know that many celebrities are very adept at promoting just the image they wish by video. The reality invariably turns out to be quite different.
3. Audio only
Usually telephone conversation, which has even more absent cues. Again, since we can hear the other person, it still can work well because we can adjust our Shadow image to make the communication work. I believe it is here where we can start to realise that we are creating a Shadow of the other person, especially if we have not met them face to face. Just remember how surprising it can be to see the person in the flesh after we had been forming a totally different image of them having only conversed by telephone.
4. Text only
The worst form of communication in terms of its ability to foster massively discordant Shadows. In ye olden days, people would take time over letter writing and would therefore ponder, peruse and pause in their thinking. But now we have the chance to “chat” instantly and isn’t that bound to be an improvement? Well, yes and no. Being faster can mean more mis-communication errors are made. On the positive side, the speed of interaction means that we can correct the error by further clarification, before the other person has a chance to ruminate and get too upset.
The Conflict Process
Person A types some text and is just not quite careful enough, writing something which is ambiguous and just happens to “push the buttons” of a recipient. Needless to say person A is totally unaware of how their message is going to be received.
Person B sees what has been written and due to their temperament, and the ambiguity inherent in the message immediately gets offended and starts making all sorts of assumptions about person A. Person A, they think, is a complete and utter twit and needs to be told so in no uncertain terms right now. “How can they think of writing something so preposterous?”
So person B fires off a flaming response, usually starting the latest flame-war.
Lets look at a typical sequence that can occur during a textual communication:
So what just happened? It is here where the idea of a Communication Shadow can be useful. What has happened is that person B very quickly created an image of person A, projecting all sorts of personality traits onto them, and then proceeded to communicate with that Shadow. From then on it may all be downhill as person A is likely to do the same with person B.
Thus we end up with a conversation with 4 people in it! Person A is going at Shadow B and Person B is going at Shadow A. Anybody who can successfully manage and calm this conflict will usually do so by getting both people to step outside of the immediate arena, psychologically speaking, and see what is happening from a distance. If successful this can immediately help them realise that assumptions have been made. Unfortunately in my experience this rarely happens and the protagonists go their separate ways, convinced of the idiocy of the other person.
Now here is the key point of this article:
The problem is not that this Communication Shadow exists…
…it is the fact that we are unaware that it exists.
If we are truly to enter into a more enlightened communications or digital age, call it what you will, then we must become more aware of the processes in which we are involved rather than solely the content of our communications.
From my experience I can see that programmers may have more trouble communicating than non-programmers. I am not pointing this out as a bad thing, rather it is a side effect of the sort of work in which we are engaged. If you have to think complex structures or processes through in your head, stringing together a number of thoughts, you must reduce your communication overhead while doing so in order to maintain flow. Once you have reached a point where you have enough coherency within those thoughts, you can then communicate them to others.
We therefore have to live in the two worlds, the inner world of thoughts, the very thoughts from which we create the software, and the outer world of our interactions with other humans, because you need a team to produce a finished product.
So I hope that you feel that the idea of a Communication Shadow has some merit and may help you to be more reflective about future conversations. Just remember that using text or email is a lot like using powerful Unix commands when logged in as root, you need to check them 3 times at least before hitting the return key.
[Note for non-programmers: A Unix command allows you to do most things through a textual interface. You don't need a window based operating system. "root" is the system administrator username on a Unix system]
Lets start with some overview of the love affair that the human race seems to have with technology.
In the 30 or so years I have been working in the profession, computers have moved from being the province of nerds to now being a fashion item. And, yes, I was a spotty faced geek with glasses spending all hours in front of a keyboard playing some of the early computer games like Dungeons and Dragons – “Get in bucket. Drop bottle. Pick up matches” – usually eliciting the response from the game – “You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike”. Those games did not need much computing power. Now if you have a Smartphone, it has more power than many desktop PCs of the 90s.
But the question that has puzzled me is why there has been an inordinate amount of time, money but above all, human energy invested in developing computer software. Where I work, for example, there have been over 2 person centuries of effort expended in writing the software, which now stands at over 16 million lines of software, if not more. This is not out of the ordinary in industry.
Information technology is just the latest result of a continuum of technological development stretching from thousands of years ago. However it has a special attribute which I will come to later.
As with the movie character Shrek, even though he didn’t like being compared to an onion, there are a number of levels here:
The Development of Craftsmanship
Humans are consummate toolmakers and the computer is the latest in a long line of inventions that have given us more power to predict and control our environment. However, every tool has two sides, just like the proverbial two-edged sword. On the plus side a good tool amplifies our capacities. The down side that is usually forgotten is that any tool will place obstacles in our path which we must overcome by training ourselves to use it properly. Eventually, with effort, we develop more skill and a good tool becomes transparent to us as we use it. This has resulted in the development of craftsmanship and the professions.
The Development of Automation
If we look at the beginning of the 20th century, Henry Ford introduced the assembly line to help speed the construction of the Model T car. This was a major change in the way work was carried out and was met by strong opposition. He doubled the pay of his employees, segregated the work, yet stayed profitable because he was able to triple the running speed of the assembly line (see Shop Class as Soulcraft reference). This was the beginning of a massive development towards more automation in the workplace. Automation is about defining sets of rules to follow, and this can be done with some non-physical work, culminating in the current so called Expert Systems. For example I would expect the legal profession to see quite a few changes in this area in the years ahead.
The Development of Software
And so we come to software development. Why do I consider it to have a separate place from the automation of other work? With software programming the rules of work are almost impossible to pin down. Software is always written in an unambiguous machine-friendly language, and requires a lot of human effort create, since we have to use the ambiguous human languages to define what we want done. Now to automate software development, which uses a language, you have to… you guessed it… use another language. This means that to improve software development you have to do even more software development! With computing this has been the story so far with many new languages appearing every year, and it does not look like slowing down.
In terms of tool use and development, we have reached the top of a pyramid, moving up from physical work to thought work. We can automate repetitive physical work by using our thinking. But to automate repetitive thinking, we can only do more thinking, but at a higher-level. Of course we need to recognise that we are talking about the more utilitarian mode of thought here, but of course, as you might expect, the view of the path starts to get murky.
More to follow…
“Shop Class as Soulcraft – An Inquiry into the Value of Work” by Matthew B Crawford, Penguin.