Relay: Is Technology Destroying Jobs?

From the “philosophy of technology not-so-deeply discussed” file comes this article from TechCrunch. It’s nice to see some of the ironic nature of technology considered:

Many of us take for granted that technology is the brightest spot in the economy, where most of the innovation and job creation occurs. But if you look more broadly at the impact of technology across every industry, it doesn’t look so great. Technology makes businesses more efficient, often by eliminating the need for repetitive tasks and the workers who do them. We are not replacing those jobs with enough new, higher-skilled ones to make up for the loss.

This, of course, has been happening for a long time, though the author makes the analogy to the workhorse rather than the industrial-age citizen:

Is the U.S. worker in the same position today as the workhorse was 100 years ago when it was replaced by another technology: the engine (first steam, and then internal combustion). Peak employment for horses was in 1901, there were 3.25 million working horses in the England. Those jobs went away with the introduction of machinery, tractors, cars, and trucks.

Another great quote, very relevant to the recent Borgmann blogs I have been writing:

But wait a second, says [Erik] Brynjollffson. His central argument, which he puts forth in Race Against the Machine, a book he co-authored with Andrew McAfee, is that it is not people versus machines. It is people with machines. Technology is just a tool that lets us be even more productive.

The problem is that not enough people know how to use the new tools of the Internet, mobile, and cloud computing. The workforce as a whole does not have the right mix of skills. Hence tech companies can’t hire enough engineers while the rest of the economy suffers from perpetual unemployment.

What a brilliant example of the instrumentalist view of technology! The problem doesn’t have anything to do with technology per se, says Brynjollffson—we simply haven’t adapted as a human race to the kinds of jobs and experiences that await in a thoroughly technological society. This is of course a valid point, but isn’t it more reasonable to ask what human flourishing consists in before capitulating to a technological paradigm? It seems to me we should be asking whether a technological society fulfills (as Borgmann put it in the last chapter I blogged about) our deepest aspirations, and only then decide how thoroughly technologized to become.

Relay: The Divided Brain

I felt compelled to break into the normal Blogging Borgmann schedule to share this wonderful video from the RSA (who puts on some amazing talks and sometimes has them animated in creative ways). It communicates a new perspective (from psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist) on the meaning of the left/right hemisphere division in the brain. As someone who is slowly recovering in life from the left-brain myopia McGilchrist describes, while trying to retain a (more integrated) view of what my intense focus and categorization of reality have to offer, I found this video very resonant.

In particular, I hope ideas like this allow for greater freedom for the right-brained people who tend to get lost or squashed in the system as it has historically evolved. And I hope that recovering left-brain myopians like myself can recognize the beauty and life available outside of our frameworks, especially when it comes to the people who just don’t make sense to us. But enough of me; watch the video, and let me know your reactions!

Relay: Interesting Stuff From the Last Month

Last month has been busy, and I haven’t figured out how to blog anything original. But that’s ok, because I have a bunch of links for you! These are things I found interesting, provocative, inspiring, or funny in the last month. I’m even going to categorize them for you:

Science

  • Honeybees are found to interact with quantum fields – a researcher noticed that bee dances trace a 2-dimensional projection of formulas of some kind of quantum math. Bee dances seemed pretty arbitrary before, and now this researcher claims that bees may be ‘in touch’ with quantum fields. If true, this would be interesting and awesome.
  • Scientists find evidence that many universes exist – I’ve always thought that “many universes” is a contradiction in terms, but hey. It turns out that our particular ‘universe’ may be just one of many ‘cosmic bubbles’ colliding around in some vast ‘multiverse’. I don’t believe this yet, and won’t until people define their terms better.
  • Thunderstorms generate anti-matter – powerful thunderstorms can generate crazy gamma ray bursts scientists think may be accompanied by anti-matter. That would be anti-awesome.

Philosophy

  • Albert Einstein writes on science and religion – some good stuff in here, especially about the awe and surprise of finding that nature has rational foundations. Also other general philosophy of science points. I still disagree with his overall statement, which is that the historically-bound bits of religion should be discarded, since he appears to take for granted their fundamental falsity.
  • Minimalism works – apparently, someone on the Internet made fun of minimalism. The article I linked is a rebuttal which I found concise and useful. Yay minimalism!

Culture

  • Suburban sprawl sucks – and it’s bad for you too. I confess this was too long for me to read completely, but I did get that the author is an advocate of getting rid of zoning laws. I, too, advocate thus.
  • The dangers of externalizing knowledge – this is a favorite topic of mine. What happens when we stop learning everything except how to Google? It’s possible that that is indeed the one skill which leads to success in life, and therefore will encourage social evolution to continue in the current trend. I’m just afraid that learning is a holistic process of shaping the entire person, body and soul. What happens when we postpone this shaping until we load Wikipedia? What will our unshaped minds do with that information, anyway? I could go on. Nice to see this on TechCrunch.
  • Caring for your introvert – this guy makes some rather grand statements concerning introversion. Given that I’m an introvert, I’m inclined to agree with the whole ‘introverts are superior’ thing, except I know it’s false. Good article anyway, despite being overblown. I also think the Enneagram could account for a lot of what he is describing, without as much polarization (or arrogance, for that matter).

Theology

  • Agnostic Christianity – doubt isn’t bad. In fact, it’s an unavoidable part of faith. Embrace and respect it!
  • The Seven: not exactly deacons – what happens when the Apostles decide they’re too important to wait tables? God uses the waiters instead. Or something like that… some good potential pastor-skewering in these passages.

Food

  • A coder’s guide to coffee – I am a coder and I love coffee. Therefore, I love this article. I just need to find a way to roast my own beans in Oxford…
  • L-Theanine in tea and not coffee – apparently this amino acid enables our bodies to use caffeine in a much more zenly awesome way. Where is it naturally found? Not coffee (damn!) but tea. If I used coffee as a mind hack, maybe I’d switch to tea. Unfortunately, I drink coffee because (a) it tastes really good, and (b) I’m physically and psychologically addicted to it. Oh well.
  • A hacker’s guide to tea – If I were to switch this is the guide that I’d use! One thing I particularly liked: camomille is not real tea! Ha, I always knew camomille sucked.

Random

  • Trimensional – a 3d scanner for the iphone. I haven’t tried it, but… really cool idea! I’m also not sure what I’d do with a 3d model of my face. I’m also not sure why they used the guy they did for the screenshots. Yikes!
  • How to draw an owl – Click through and see the picture. Hilarious. And also a good prompt for discussion. So often, what is left out of how-to guides is: “now, practice x for thousands of hours”.

Relay: Dead Downwind Faster Than The Wind

A few weeks ago, I came across the description of an extremely inspiring engineering project at Kimball Livingston’s blog (pictures and videos taken from there). Basically, conventional wisdom in wind propulsion is that, whatever the wind is propelling, that object can’t actually go faster than the wind unless it uses up some kind of stored energy (fuel, rowing, etc…). Rick Cavallaro thought otherwise, put his ideas out there for how it might work to go dead downwind, faster than the wind, and was roundly ridiculed by pretty much everyone.

Instead of being disheartened, he put together a team to build the strange propellor-shaped sails that he thought would carry a vehicle faster than the wind. They crafted their land-boat to precise yet hand-made specifications (even using a bicycle wheel!), and set out to test Cavallaro’s crazy theory. Here’s an initially slow-paced video of the attempt:

Ultimately, they clocked the craft at 2.8x the speed of the wind! This is what I would call ridiculously awesome, and a reminder that physics, if we needed a reminder, is really interesting. I also admire the story of the iconoclastic scientist whose theories were at first mocked and then, not simply proved theoretically possible in a mathematical equation or a lab, but tested out on the salt flats with a guy in a helmet sitting in it! I guess the point is that there are plenty of good ideas out there that just haven’t been tried—and that’s something I think I often do need a reminder of.

Check out Livingston’s blog post for a detailed story of what happened. There’s also a Discovery Channel video with interviews, etc…