Maintenance vs. Disposable Culture

Last shots of RX7 before selling.Like some of you, I grew up in what I call a maintenance culture. We took care of what we had because it wasn’t disposable, because we appreciated it, and because we wanted it to last longer. You still find it here and there when you open the hood of a vehicle and see a neatly dressed engine, or when you see a shiny pair of boots. There’s a quiet dignity, though, to the closed engine hood with a clean engine underneath. Most sane people don’t open their hoods to show off. They do it because they feel it needs to be done and they feel better knowing it is done.

I mention all of this because I was chatting with a lawyer not long ago and I summarized some of what we see as a difference between the maintenance culture we grew up in as and the Disposable Culture that now exists.

Cars? Disposable. Shoes? Disposable. Glasses? Disposable. Utensils? Disposable. Computers? Disposable. Telephones? Disposable every time someone comes out with a new phone – status symbols. Everything has been so disposable for so long.

That’s changing, maybe, but not by much, and not for the same reasons.

Reviewed by Bird, Headed for LandfillEntire generations have gone without getting the deposits back on glass bottles – they just threw the plastic bottles away, as if tossing them in a bag or a bin would make them disappear from the Universe. Unfortunately for all of us, the Universe has different priorities and destroying plastic bottles is not one of them – all but the most ignorant see that now.

The same holds true of computers, whose boards house all form of nasty things that don’t belong in a water table.

Some people have recycled for years, sometimes more to claim some moral high ground instead of the Grand Purpose of Giving The Universe a Break.

And still, the Maintenance culture is not returning. It exists still – we still might marvel at the cars in Cuba, maintained with parts made in Cuba, as needed. Or in other parts of the world where simple things such as water still remain a commodity. We take care of things, as a society, until they are items that we cherish.

No one cherishes an old Chromebook. The Chromebook I’m tapping this out on was probably purchased in 2013, and is as unfashionable as last year’s iPhone. Yet it works, even with the recent misadventures of being dropped and stepped on by the author.

But how did this all come to be, anyway? How did we go from not buying new things when the old ones worked just fine, when we maintained things – how did we go from there to  throwing phones away every year?

Cheaper manufacturing is a key to this – we produce a lot more a lot faster, which means that we have more to sell – and marketers build on an odd human instinct to want to have some form of elevated status by having the newest things. Some might say that this is so that they can attract sexual partners, that it has an evolutionary benefit, but having seen some of the children growing up now I’m not certain there is an actual evolutionary benefit to attracting sexual partners so that a new generation of children like some I’ve seen becomes predominant. If you have well behaved children that value people more than things, I encourage you to continue having them if only to even the odds.

What I’m getting at is that a maintenance culture leads to a maintenance society. A disposable culture leads to a disposable society.

We’re definitely disposable these days, it seems.

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Global Audiences, Global Publishing

Cloudy Earth

I wrote ‘Local Context In All Context In A Networked World‘ a few weeks before I wrote ‘Writers Without Borders‘.

That there’s a common theme is not a mistake. On a planet where we now can know almost instantaneously know what is happening on other parts of the planet, we as a whole aren’t really that good at communicating across the very same planet. Beyond the obvious, where lack of internet connection is a problem, we face other human challenges.

Language remains a barrier. There have been strides in automatic translation, but it’s still far from perfect and may always be. Our language evolves, enough such that ‘figuratively’ and ‘literally’ mean the same in our newest dictionaries – both figuratively and literally. Colloquialisms defy translation because they are so easily misinterpreted in other parts of the world.

‘Paw paw’, using Google Translate today, translates to the Spanish ‘garra’ – which translates back to ‘Claw’. In Trinidad and Tobago, ‘paw paw’ is a colloquialism for ‘papaya’. A green paw paw is not a green claw, at least in Trinidad and Tobago.

Babel. It’s all meaningless babel. And in a world that makes more and more use of Natural Language Processing, such that large amounts of information are analyzed and presented to a human without human interaction, there could be a human at the other end of that software wondering why people in Trinidad and Tobago eat claws.

Then we get into different acronyms – there are so many acronyms around the world.

Now, one can argue that other people need to learn everything. One can spend a lot of time doing that, and being insulted by people who don’t understand what you’re trying to communicate – or worse, insulting people who don’t understand what you’re trying to communicate. Is the goal to fight over these things or is it to be misunderstood?

For me, it’s to be misunderstood. For corporations, it’s about being understood. For governments… well, maybe not, but at least some of us think that the goal of governments should be to be understood.

Think Global, Act Local‘ doesn’t make as much sense on a planet where we actually do act globally by sharing information.

We need to think global and act global – and still act local.

This is a hard thing to think about. It’s alien. Our societies evolved as much through distance from other societies as other things – in fact, the distance was a large part of helping define a society. Immigration departments have taken over that job, and while they do serve a purpose, I have yet to hear someone happy about immigration. In fact, if they were happy, immigration would probably detain them.

But… Writing?

But what does that mean for writing in particular? Honestly, not as much as one would think if writers adhere to some good practice developed over the course of the 10,000 year history of writing. Things like, when using a potentially unknown acronym, expanding it the first time. With technology that is now a few decades old, we can link to a reference.

We can give appropriate context. We can tag our content, and for the sake of the space-time continuum, we should have dates and times instead of simply, “yesterday” or “Tomorrow” or… These have been standard communication guidelines for centuries, if not millennia.

This is not hard.

Filling Voids

VoidI’m paying much more attention to my writing these days and, stepping back for a moment last night, I realized that some of the things I’ve been writing are to fill voids.

There’s the issue of purchasing land in Trinidad and Tobago, which isn’t actually hard, but it is something a significant amount of people I have encountered in the world and social media have not gotten right. When so many people are screwing something up, one has to wonder why that is. It’s easily dismissed as people being stupid, but it’s improperly dismissed that way. People simply don’t know. Despite writing that article, there’s a demographic that will still screw it up – but I’ve done my part.

That lead me to wonder why local media hasn’t successfully addressed the problem, if at all. Of course, they may have covered it – I spend less and less time reading local media – but the problem persists. So if that article helps one person, it will have done it’s job. If it helps 100, it’s a success. If it influences 1,000 people to do things properly, it will be slightly awesome. It will have served a purpose.

There are things people need to know. In the world, information like that is guarded for no real reason, and it keeps people back.

In a world of information, we have information fiefdoms guarded by gatekeepers. There’s no reason for any of this to be hard or difficult other than the highest priority of a gatekeeper seems to be self-preservation.

The truth is, I like the voids. As a software engineer, I fell in love with the problems no one else could solve, even with the advent of the Internet and search engines – the bleeding edge.

There’s plenty of bleeding edge outside of technology, too – we tend to think of things on the horizon when that bleeding edge is instead getting people to tie their shoes so that they don’t trip on the way there.

Having tripped on my shoelaces so often while staring into a void, I do not find it amusing to see other people do it.

Much Ado About Russia.

ПетергофIt seems like every time I open some social media site, someone’s posting about Russia. About how they allegedly influenced the U.S. Elections, about who in the Trump Administration passed notes to someone in Russia, and so on and so forth.

That’s all I know, that’s all I’m going to know, and realistically, I don’t even need to know that. Wait, what?

Right. I don’t need to know all of that. We live on this rotating sphere filled with people who are separated by lines on maps. These people – human beings, so you know – are only citizens of one country or another by accident of birth and legal policies decided before they were born. Maybe a few snuck through here and there, but that’s how it is.

And these countries used to be separated by oceans or fences or languages or… well, they were more separate than they are now on the Internet. Everyone is influencing everyone’s elections one way or the other by mouthing off on social media, so all we’re really discussing is degree.

USA Today pedantically went through 3,517 Facebook ads bought by Russians (not to be confused with the Russian government, any characters from Rocky and Bullwinkle, or Ivan Drago).

But they missed a significant point – a point that no one is talking about because it’s so inconvenient and, probably, because it doesn’t sell advertising.

Ads or no ads, those ads wouldn’t be clicked by anyone who didn’t already have a sentiment or world view that made them believe the ad in the first place. 

That sentiment could not have been Russian. It wasn’t from Pluto, either. That sentiment that allowed that advertising to work, if indeed it did, was part of the United States.

Either that, or Russians are running amok in the U.S., holding guns to people’s heads and telling them to click the advertisements.

I suppose these days, anything is possible.

Wanting Things To Work.

A Technology Society Ponders Bureaucracy
A wonderful metaphor of a frustrated technology society that keeps hitting it’s shin on bureaucracy. 

The fun part of this article is that you can replace “Trinidad and Tobago” with just about every country I have lived in or visited and have it be understood. It’s a global issue. 

It’s been a long week for me here in Trinidad and Tobago, yet along the way I met kindred spirits of all varieties.

When I went to one government office, I found that there were no numbers and that people were called as the security guard dictated. Fortunately, she dictated in a way that benefited me, but I do not know that it was fair.  I was done in record time, largely because of things I had done with the office in 2011 to turn the bureaucracy against itself in a loop, in a hope it would be fixed. It hasn’t been fixed, of course, but my prior work and explanation – and I daresay my sincerity – got me out of there in less than an hour.

The next day, I would take the form from that office to Yet Another Government Office after researching the appropriate website as to the requirements. I almost got it done that day – the office required 2 forms of ID, the website said ‘some form of ID’, and I was stalled for a day. The next day, I dutifully returned bearing two forms of ID and some other unrequired documentation to smooth things over. In less than an hour, a complicated process that stymies people for weeks was begun.

I know how those systems work and how they don’t. I have insight. And in both of those cases, I spoke with customer service representatives who were as frustrated with the process as I was and who made a crappy process work right. Whether it works out, I should know within a week.

That’s Not So Bad.

If this sounds like it was easy, it may seem that way on the surface – but it wasn’t as easy as it should be. It wasn’t as easy as it could be. Dealing with government offices, paying bills, visiting the bank – these things are unpredictable. People end up losing hours of work in government offices all over the country. The offices will argue that the people weren’t prepared, or didn’t listen, and some even treat them so. Some people are simply idiots – I found a few sitting around me here and there on their umpteenth time speaking with the same people over and over again but not actually listening.

There’s the way things probably should work, and then there’s the way things really work. It’s that thing that maybe should be called cognitive dissonance I am writing about.

The least stressful way of dealing with things is largely by understanding reality and dealing with it. And yet, decades of doing that here in Trinidad and Tobago have not given any improvement – I will argue that it enables it. I was heartened, though, that a new generation is entering these government offices and that they understand it – empathize – from their side of the desk as well. I thanked them for that.

We Want Things To Work.

We live in a world where, thanks to the Internet, we can see things wrong faster than they can be fixed by the snaggle-toothed gears of bureaucracy. Many systems around the world are outdated by so much that it boggles the mind. For me at times, it’s a special kind of Hell where, as someone who has designed systems, I cringe inwardly even as I keep a smile on my face. Getting angry doesn’t make things better, allowing it to stay the same doesn’t make things better… but here and there some strategic poking might work.

Not everyone can do that. Not everyone can stand up to a system and stare it down with a smile. Most of us get frustrated, angry, depressed… either we are beaten, or we rage against the machine.

Neither works.

To fix the mechanisms of society, we need to not only understand how things work well beyond social-media (read: armchair) discussion, but be able to push things the way that we think they should go. A smile here, a joke there, standing up for yourself yet being flexible enough to get what you need out of the system.

That’s what made it a long week.

Those two offices alone, while I spent less than 2 hours altogether at them, required driving for 2 hours. It required researching things as best I could, it required roughly a decade’s worth of sorted documentation. It required patience that the world as it is pushed onto the shoulders of a once young and passionate man who raged against the machine… until he realized what he was doing wasn’t working.

Until he realized that he needed it to work now instead of when things were done ‘right’ at some point in an unforeseeable future.

Things get better, but it takes a moderate voice to make it happen. Yelling makes you hoarse and assures no one will listen to you. Allowing it to go on unchecked makes you an enabler. To affect change, a clear and human voice needs to be heard.

If only you could explain that to those that rage against the machine… or enable it by their silence.

And still, there’s that young man in me that wants to rage ineffectively against the machine.. which is why I wrote about it for me. Maybe you’ll benefit. 

The Age of Dune

The-Spice-Must-Flow-PosterWe’re in a strange age of Dune, metaphorically. If you haven’t read the books or, for the reading impaired, the movie, you won’t get the metaphor – you should go do either immediately and not return to the internet until you have.

If you’ll recall, the book was about Spice – and how the spice must flow. Last century, it was a metaphor for oil, and this century, it’s a metaphor for information.

I bring this all up because of the Russian submarines making NATO nervous because they’re prowling near underwater cables. The conversations around this speculated on them eavesdropping – relatively tinfoil hat – when a real threat is the severing off those cables. Remember how Mua’dib rose to power? Who can destroy the Spice controls the Spice, and who controls the Spice is the real power.

Factor in the death of network neutrality, which has been long dead in other ways while people have been discussing the imminent rigor mortis while poking it with a stick. It’s not as if Facebook has been deleting accounts at the requests of the U.S. and Israeli governments.  It’s not as if any despot of any sort hasn’t at least tried to control the information flow. The trouble is that most people don’t understand information and don’t understand data beyond the definitions in dictionaries and antiquated textbooks.

Information flows. In a battlefield somewhere, a severed submarine cable can mean chaos on the ground somewhere. In a world where cables connect markets, severed cables mean being unable to get access to those markets. It means isolation.

The spice must flow, the information must flow. And those who seek to destroy information, from burning books to limiting access for people to information is about isolating, about controlling, and about power. How will it end?

I’ll be in my garden, monitoring the situation. You kids play nice.

2018: Tech and Society

Brighter FutureOn the human meta level, it’s pretty clear that robotics and AI will continue making inroads into our societies in ways that we aren’t yet prepared for. Personally, it’s amusing when what got me into software engineering for a living as a young man increasingly becomes a reality 2 decades later. In fact, it’s the only reason I code these days, and coding itself as we know it is in it’s twilight.

While blue collar jobs have always been what has been worried about as far as ‘machines taking jobs’, there is a clear bias to deal with expense. Where technology can make things cheaper, it does, so those with high salaries and jobs that can be automated will be increasingly put on notice. This leaves us with the dilemma of how people will earn a living, a real problem in a world where bureaucracies have demonstrably been slow to react to these changes, where politics around the world has somehow become more palpably connected with fear, where people see things faster, and where our ability to use technology to communicate dwarfs our ability to do so.

Renewable energy has gone beyond being a novelty – even here in Trinidad and Tobago, when over a decade ago my father tried to sell the government on solar powered street lights, the local electricity company – state owned T&TEC – announced in late 2017 that they’ll be doing stuff with it. Technology lags in countries around the world, and 2018 will continue increasing that divide – but a nation’s ability to use technology does not define it’s advancement, as economic policies on a global scale have the developed world in for a redefinition. BRIC is a reality, and network power continues to make them powerhouses.

I think of my nieces in college, my nephews about to start college, and how their education can be made worthwhile by simply being relevant over the next few decades of their lives – but their lives will be redefined by things larger than the education systems that they will be indentured to. We are on the precipice of change that we cannot possibly understand the implications of until we’re on the other side of it.

And 2018 will be increasingly about that.

Humanoid Gets Citizenship: Odd.

Sophia RobotIf you think the world couldn’t get any weirder, it just got ratcheted up. Saudi Arabia, the country where atheists are considered terrorists and  women have less rights than in other countries, has made a humanoid artificial intelligence a citizen – the first humanoid AI citizen in the world.

So, the question is, is Sophia the AI a woman who has less rights than other places in the world, or is she a ‘terrorist’ – or has she had an AI sex change and become Muslim?

Technology And Arts

Sisyphean TechnologyPeople in technology of my era and later are strange creatures that delve into the depths of understanding the cold and relentless logic of systems that they create and maintain. We see the same in other fields, in Law, in Medicine, Accounting and so many others.

Today, as Lessig wrote, ‘Code is Law‘, and Law wrestles with technology even as technology works to circumvent existing Law. Law, as a freshman student will tell you, is not Ethics – it is an attempt at the codification of Ethics in a society. That distinction is important yet routinely forgotten by many – and that’s where some empowered by technology have an ax to grind. Others are just in it for the money, or for some political agenda.

One of the problems we face, as a global society of screen-watchers, is that we have separate silos of technology and arts – where technology is often used as a platform for the liberal arts.

Tech, Bureaucracy, and the Humans

In my sojourns, I came across someone who had worked with Social Services in Siparia, Trinidad and Tobago, and took the opportunity to hear some of their experiences. In my world, I connect with people of all types in society, and there is much to be learned from that.

He tells me an old woman made him cry. It’s a very human story, where the children abandoned the mother, but the meat for this post is in the beginning of the story, where he lays the context:

“Every year pensioners have to come in and sign a document to show that they’re not dead.”, he said.

I looked at him, appreciating what he said and how he said it – how silly it is. I smiled.

“No, really, that’s the only reason that these people have to come in. To show that they’re not dead.”

I got it the first time, which he wasn’t used to, but here’s why that is something I had to smile at and why he felt he needed to repeat himself: Within the last decade, births and deaths – it’s buried in some Ministry somewhere, I don’t really care which – became computerized, and they’ve been busy updating birth certificates to the point where the populace is a bit tired of having to go get an updated document from Births and Deaths.

So that information exists in computer readable form in one tendril of the vast bureaucracy. Yet, somehow, it is not connected to the pensioner’s information. Now, people do have to go in and sign because others had been collecting pensions for the dead, so now someone has to wander in and prove that they are still alive. “I’m here! I’m breathing! Here’s my signature!”

But the data could be connected. It could allow the pensioners to stay home, and if there are questions, why not go to them? Having recently dealt with the death of someone close to me who was a pensioner and having seen what her son went through, it seems peculiar that we need to torture the old and the weak to prove that they still get a payment deposited to their account. There are so many ways to deal with that.

It’s these little things that technology, properly done, could help with. It’s these little things that technology doesn’t in Trinidad and Tobago.

Maybe privatization is the way to go to make things more human, but then with corruption and poor analyses of what actually exists, who is to say that it would get done? Therein lies the rub.

Given the opportunity, I’m sure that people could fix that. I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to see silly little things like that fixed. Pensioners are already on the downhill slope, why subject them to a gauntlet of 1,000 papercuts?