(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Technology

“The advance of machine-technique must lead ultimately to some form of collectivism, but that form need not necessarily be equalitarian”*…

Whither our relationship with the technology that’s become so engrained a part of our lives? And what of the companies that provide it? Tim Carmody muses…

The end of the heroic age of the tech giants does not imply that tech giants are in decline, but confusing the two is natural. Observers and analysts usually talk that way about companies, especially tech companies and the platforms they enable: they grow, mature, then decline (in relevance if not in revenue).

In general, what characterizes this phase of the tech giants’ development is a shift from unlocking user creativity and customer value to doubling down on surveillance, usually augmented by AI. Mass surveillance was always an important emergent part of the tech giants’ strategy, but was arguably secondary to delighting users and giving them greater capabilities. Now surveillance and nonhuman solutions are dominant, and the creative possibilities are now almost all residual.

(Yes, this “emergent/dominant/residual” schema is a Raymond Williams reference.)…

… Both of these declines — the decline of the consumer experience and the decline of the market forecasts — are driving tech companies’ retreat from what I’m calling their heroic phase. But neither are identical to it.

We can imagine — in fact, I predict — that these companies’ stock prices will rebound along with the rest of the market. Their profits will soar — the newfound emphasis on profits rather than reinvestment demands that they soar. Their technical innovations will continue, especially in AI, automation, and cloud computing. And yes, customers from you and me to the DoD will continue to shop for, use, and stream their products.

The main difference is that it’s now clearer than ever before that these companies’ interests are not the same as their customers’, or their workers’. There’s nothing universal about the technology revolution, no rising tide that lifts all boats. We have to give up that fiction in order to see things as they really are…

Eminently worth reading in full: “Two ways to think about decline,” from @tcarmody via @sentiers.

* George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier


As we (re-)think tech, we might recall that it was on this date in 1871 that Andrew Smith Hallidie received a patent for an “endless wire rope way” which he then put into practice as the Clay Street Hill Railroad– the start of the San Francisco cable car system.


A view of the railroad in 1876 (source)

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January 17, 2023 at 1:00 am

“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”*…

Zeno shows the Doors to Truth and Falsity (Veritas et Falsitas). Fresco in the Library of El Escorial, Madrid (source)

As Joel David Hamkins explains, an ancient puzzle leads ultimately to a remarkable observation on the malleable nature of infinite sums…

The Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea (c. 490–430 BC) argued in antiquity that all motion is impossible. It is simply impossible to walk through town or even across the room, to go from here to there. What? We know, of course, that this is possible—we walk from here to there every day. And yet, Zeno offers us his proof that this is an illusion—we simply cannot do it.

Zeno argued like this. Suppose it were possible for you to move from some point A to another distinct point B.

Before you complete the move from A to B , however, you must of course have gotten half way there.

But before you get to this half-way point, of course, you must get half way to the half-way point! And before you get to that place, you must get half way there.

And so on, ad infinitum.

Thus, to move from A to B , or indeed anywhere at all, one must have completed an infinite number of tasks—a supertask. It follows, according to Zeno, that you can never start moving—you cannot move any amount at all, since before doing that you must already have moved half as much. And so, contrary to appearances, you are frozen motionless, unable to begin. All motion is impossible.

Is the argument convincing? On what grounds would you object to it? Do you think, contrary to Zeno, that we can actually complete infinitely many tasks? How would that be possible?

It will be no good, of course, to criticize Zeno’s argument on the grounds that we know that motion is possible, for we move from one point to another every day. That is, to argue merely that the conclusion is false does not actually tell you what is wrong with the argument—it does not identify any particular flaw in Zeno’s reasoning. After all, if it were in fact an illusion that we experience motion, then your objection would be groundless…

Learning from an enigma– plus “the most contested equation in middle school” and more: “Zeno’s paradox,” from @JDHamkins.

* Niels Bohr


As we interrogate infinity, we might send-well-groomed birthday greetings to Frank Joseph Zamboni, Jr.; he was born on this date in 1901.  An engineer and inventor, he is best known for the modern ice resurfacer, seen at work at hockey games and figure skating competitions (completing its rounds, Zeno notwithstanding); indeed, his surname is the registered trademark for these devices.



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January 16, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Rumors and reports of man’s relation with animals are the world’s oldest news stories, headlined in the stars of the zodiac, posted on the walls of prehistoric caves”*…

Aerial view of a kite in the Khaybar area of north-west Saudi Arabia. These ancient hunting structures were named ‘kites’ by aviators in the 1920s because, observed from above, their form is reminiscent of old-fashioned child’s kites with streamers.

… and on the surface of the desert. Vittoria Benzine explains…

In the 1920s, British Royal Air Force pilots over the Middle East recorded the first sightings of what they dubbed desert kites—massive patterns carved into rocky land, often resembling the famous flying toy.

Archaeologists have since debated the purpose of these enigmas, which appear across geographies and eras, dating back to the Neolithic Period (10,000–2,200 B.C.E.) in Jordan, the early Bronze Age (3,300–2,100 B.C.E.) in Israel’s Negev Desert, and the Middle Bronze Age (2,100–1,550 B.C.E.) in Armenia. Some thought they were cultural cornerstones. Still more posited they were pens for domesticating animals.

Three recent peer-reviewed papers confirm popular hypotheses that the desert kites actually served as mass hunting traps, allowing early desert dwellers to kill entire herds of game at once. While they were active, the kites funneled gazelle and ibex down tapered, wall-lined paths which ended in massive pits or sudden cliffs where creatures were trapped and killed. The kites’s particular placement, length, and shape generally demonstrate a sophisticated knowledge of landscapes and animal behaviors…

The full story at “Scientists Have Cracked the Origins of ‘Desert Kites,’ Massive Prehistoric Patterns That Were Carved into the Middle Eastern Desert,” from @vittoriabenzine in @artnet.

* Lewis Lapham


As we we admire ingenuity, we might spare a thought for Siegfried Frederick (“S.F.” or “Fred”) Nadel; he died on this date in 1956. An anthropologist who did important work in Africa, he is best remembered as a theorist whose work built on the thinking of Bronislaw Malinowski, sociologist Max Weber, philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, and psychologist Kurt Koffka. In The Foundations of Social Anthropology (1951) he asserted that the main task of the science is to explain as well as to describe aim-controlled, purposive behaviour. Suggesting that sociological facts emerge from psychological facts, he argued that full explanations are to be derived from psychological exploration of motivation and consciousness. And in his posthumous Theory of Social Structure (1958), regarded as one of the 20th century’s foremost theoretical works in the social sciences, Nadel examined social roles, which he considered to be crucial in the analysis of social structure.


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January 14, 2023 at 1:00 am

“There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”*…

Some observations are best considered “interesting, if true”; some, a la Karl Popper, “true, until false”… Consider this very recent paper in Nature

Theories of scientific and technological change view discovery and invention as endogenous processes, wherein previous accumulated knowledge enables future progress by allowing researchers to, in Newton’s words, ‘stand on the shoulders of giants.’ Recent decades have witnessed exponential growth in the volume of new scientific and technological knowledge, thereby creating conditions that should be ripe for major advances. Yet contrary to this view, studies suggest that progress is slowing in several major fields. Here, we analyse these claims at scale across six decades, using data on 45 million papers and 3.9 million patents from six large-scale datasets, together with a new quantitative metric—the CD index—that characterizes how papers and patents change networks of citations in science and technology. We find that papers and patents are increasingly less likely to break with the past in ways that push science and technology in new directions. This pattern holds universally across fields and is robust across multiple different citation- and text-based metrics. Subsequently, we link this decline in disruptiveness to a narrowing in the use of previous knowledge, allowing us to reconcile the patterns we observe with the ‘shoulders of giants’ view. We find that the observed declines are unlikely to be driven by changes in the quality of published science, citation practices or field-specific factors. Overall, our results suggest that slowing rates of disruption may reflect a fundamental shift in the nature of science and technology.

The full paper: “Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time@Nature

One notes that the quote above– from Lord Kelvin, at the turn of the twentieth century– immediately preceded a couple of decades in which physics was radically redefined and advanced by Planck, Einstein, Bohr, et al. (In fairness to Kelvin, consider this suggestion that his point was more subtle.) As we look forward, we might ponder the ways in which the reorganization of disciplines, the rise of research in other cultures (less constrained by the mores of “conventional” research), the use of AI, and/or some as yet unknown dynamic could challenge the phenomenon– “a narrowing in the use of previous knowledge”– to which the authors attribute diminishing disruption.

[Source of the image above]

* Lord Kelvin, in an address to the the Royal Institution in April of 1900


As we ponder progress, we might send advanced birthday greetings to Wilhelm Wien; he was born on this date in 1864. A physicist, his work helped move past Kelvin’s log-jam. In 1893, he used theories about heat and electromagnetism to deduce Wien’s displacement law, which calculates the emission of a blackbody (a surface that absorbs all radiant energy falling on it) at any temperature from the emission at any one reference temperature. His colleague Max Planck colaborated with Wien, then extended the thinking in what we now know as Planck’s law, which led to the development of quantum theory.

Wien received the 1911 Nobel Prize for his work on heat radiation.

Just before Kelvin’s speech (in 1898) Wien identified a positive particle equal in mass to the hydrogen atom– what we now know as a proton. Wien, in the techniques he used, laid the foundation of mass spectrometry.


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January 13, 2023 at 1:00 am

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”*…

Liam Grace-Flood on the near universal comedy of technological failure…

… I’ve always been more interested in the failed inventions that aren’t just paving stones on the road to success. The kind of attempts that are so bad that you have to wonder “are they serious?” – like a nose stylus (pictured above) for using your phone in the bath when your hands get wet.

There are many variations on the idea of ‘failed invention.’ Rube Goldberg machines are overly-complicated contraptions, designed to accomplish simple tasks. Kludges and jugaads are hacky devices assembled from what’s available – usually creating something much weirder than if you started from scratch. There’s a whole genre of life hack TikToks where creators, in the quest to create as much content as possible, don’t stop to ask if what they’re creating makes any sense at all. But I’d say the genre of bad invention with the most nuanced and interesting relationship to failure is Chindogu.

Chindogu is a Japanese word meaning “weird tool.” These (almost) useless inventions might address a challenge, but they also create bigger problems. Iconic Chindogu inventions include chopsticks with a fan attached for cooling hot food and a onesie with mop-like fringe, harnessing the untapped crawling power of your baby to clean the floor. While inventions like these are usually not practical for their intended purpose, they can still be charming, evocative, and funny, and give us something that successful inventions can’t. They offer a moment’s deviation from some prescribed path to success, a pause in the slog of value creation, to allow a moment’s worth of weird joy…

A warm and wonderful appraisal of the innovative spirit (that doubles as a last-minute Holiday gift list): “On Chindogu,” in @the_prepared.

(Image above: source)

* Thomas Edison


As we celebrate snafus, we might send well-designed birthday greetings to someone who successfully connected products with users, Walter Dorwin Teague; he was born on this date in 1883.  An industrial designer, architect, illustrator, graphic designer, writer, and entrepreneur, he is often called the “Dean of Industrial Design,” a field that he pioneered as a profession in the US, along with Norman Bel Geddes, Raymond Loewy, and Henry Dreyfuss.  He is widely known for his exhibition designs during the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair (including the Ford Building), and for his iconic product and package designs, from Eastman Kodak’s Bantam Special to the steel-legged Steinway piano.



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December 18, 2022 at 1:00 am

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