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Tag Archives: Smartphones

“Information”: a hazardous category

“Information” is a pretentious word. So are its kin, “data” and “data points” (???) If bad writing is about things that are not concrete, then info-data is its muse.

It’s a fancy word for “stuff,” in the end. Imagine the following slogans recast to show how trite info-data is:

-“the stuff age”
-“stuff technology’
-“big stuff”
-“stuff analytics”

Some uses – “mobile data” – are more concrete. But look: it’s scary that a basic synonym probes the shallowness of info-data. It’s about air, about ideas that are festooned with flowery words like “solutions” and “digital” that themselves are blank, yet somehow add more character (“solution ” is at least evaluative; info-data is nothingness, less material even than “stuff” and its vivid homophones).

image

Why resort to info-data? Because computers and the industries around them lack a clear reason for existing.

The Internet is an outgrowth of the telegraph that has done as much bad (spying, fake social media personae, argument for no reason, stress over minor things like email) as good (new tools for writing, reading, and chatting).

Computers themselves are often justified as “productivity” tools, but “productivity” is a ritual, not a result. New jobs and issues are created to feed the hunger for “productivity,” but it can’t be sated.

Like the Internet, financial services, and 100-hour workweeks, computers keep recreating the need for productivity, rather than satisfying its requirements. We’re solving a problem that isn’t there – maybe that’s why “solutions” is meaningless and a crutch.

Info-data is even more generic and, well, insincere. Something like info-data has always existed for humans, but it has enjoyed a moment now that it is associated with smartphones and PCs. Are “analog” media like books repositories of info-data? Why didn’t the invention of the codex form kick off The Information Age?

Whereas books have clear boundaries and purposes – a novel for leisure reading; a textbook for education – info-data media do not. The Web has no purpose, and computers, while no generating info-data, are little more than extensions of analog tools for gaming and writing.

The info-data lingo makes computers and the Internet seem profound, like clear breaks with what came before. But this language is vague, and it reveals summering so ordinary that terms for the most ancient, mundane things – information, data – have to be put into service because there’s nothing else there.

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Technology Doesn’t Cause Change

If you’ve read nearly any technology news site or blog in the last 15 years, you’ve probably encountered articles that told you how the Internet has “changed everything,” or how technology is forcing you to be ruder, or that technology, god bless it, is relentlessly making certain things obsolete. Yet there is still something deeply weird about all of the statements above: the agent is not a human being, but rather a nebulous concept like “the Internet” or “technology,” i.e., things that are either useless without human maintenance and input (“technology”), or theoretical concepts that are created mostly by a small group of programmers, journalists, and speakers who see said concept as a coherent system to be either written about, sanctimoniously defended, and/or milked for cash (“the Internet”).

I mean, just look at RealClearTechnology‘s homepage today. Apparently, “Big Data” can make one do something, and “the Internet” was kind enough to save marriage for us humans:

RCT

Big Data and the Internet: finally taking some initiative.

Despite its seemingly obvious level of ridiculousness, these sorts of constructions perhaps can’t be appreciated unless one tries in out in other contexts, like saying “My shirt is revolutionizing how I dress,” or “The umbrella is disrupting the reaction to rainstorms.” In both cases, the object itself isn’t revolutionizing/disrupting/doing anything; a person is, and the object is just a tool. The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk wrote something scarily prescient about agency and object-worship in his novel, The Black Book, speaking through the writings of a trouble character:

“In the beginning it was I who created the eye. My aim: I created it, of course, so that it could see me, watch me. I had no desire to escape its gaze. It was under its gaze that I made myself–made myself in its image–and I basked happily in its warm glow. It was because I was under the eye’s constant surveillance that I knew I existed. If the eye didn’t see me, I would cease to exist at all! This seemed so clear to me that I soon forgot I was the one who had created the eye in the first place and began to thank it for allowing me to exist.”

Indeed, it seems that much of the tech press and punditry is now in the position of thanking and/or blaming certain technologies and companies (rather than living persons) for the state of the world.

I’m hardly a pioneer in bemoaning how inanimate and manmade objects have taken on the traits of real, human agents in technology journalism. Leo Marx has written a great essay about the “hazardous” category of technology, and Evgeny Morozov has written several books about the fallacy of seeing “the Internet” as a singular, sacred creation with a coherent set of tools and concepts under its umbrella. To the latter point, it does seem silly that “the Internet” (as Morozov likes to label it) is often spoken of as if it is itself a living being with some unassailable set of laws and principles that protect and govern it, despite it being by and large a subjective creation that is driven by easily manipulatable, biased, and self-interested forces like Google or the whims of certain programmers and developers.

“The Internet is changing how…” no! “The Internet” isn’t changing anything; the persons who use the Internet are changing things, and by ignoring them as the true agents, we’re not assigning proper responsibility or moral assessment to societal changes. When musicians begin struggling to make money off of their catalogues, we’re probably tempted to say that “well, that’s just the way technology goes…iTunes, Spotify, blah blah blah,” without realizing that of course Spotify or any other tool would be useless if no one signed up for them and manually used them to listen to music. The users are driving the change, not the technology, but by saying that “Spotify is making it difficult for musicians to make money” we treat Spotify (in this case) as an active, unstoppable force of nature, when in fact it is just a human creation made by humans with certain interests.

Ignoring this fact makes it easy to in turn overlook the fact that Spotify’s creators (like iTunes’ creators) stood to make a lot of money themselves off of this “revolution” in music distribution, which sort of takes some of the luster out of the idyllic (and ridiculous, yet widespread) narrative that the change was instead incited by some disinterested, neutral, relentless natural force of “disruption” or “innovation,” which emerged to its chroniclers in the same way that, say, gravity emerged to Isaac Newton.

By avoiding assigning any agency to the service’s creators, we underserve our own interests and livelihoods since we don’t realize why a certain app or service or product became popular, namely, that it was designed and promoted by humans and then used by other humans. Regarding the agent of change as instead some unstoppable technological force, we thin become less sympathetic (even if unconsciously so) to the real humans who suffer from this change because, as the story goes, there’s nothing that can be done anyway. You would think that this sequence of events would be obvious and discernible, but instead it remains hidden under layers about how technology is forcing helpless humans to use certain devices or apps.

It’s time to stop and realize that technology itself is a tool and not a self-starting, self-sustaining force:

-Your smartphone isn’t making you ruder. You’re becoming ruder because you’re opting into a communications system designed by other human beings for maximum profit.

-The Internet isn’t making you sad. Comparing yourself to other human being is making you sad; the Internet is just the medium, one that you voluntarily chose to operate.

-Technology is not causing political upheaval in your country (though saying so is a good way to incite ridicule from some great satirical Twitter accounts). Technology is simply the medium; the message would exist with or without it.

The Internet isn’t changing concepts about copyright. It is only exacerbating the tendency of many humans to be cheap and not pay creators for their work: that couldn’t be pulled-off as easily in the past, prior to Web pioneers creating tools like Napster or BitTorrent to serve their own interests (those tools were not inevitable or unstoppable forces in any way).

Google Glass isn’t changing how privacy and decorum are regarded. It is simply an instrument that indulges many persons’ tendencies to keep up competitively with others and ignore unpleasantries in their midst.

We should take responsibility for our world and realize that we are its chief actors, rather than the “technology” that we often vest with such curious power and agency.

-The ScreenGrab Team

Chrome OS Gains Traction: Is The “Netbook” Really Dead?

Acer reported today that computers running Google’s free Chrome OS accounted for up to ten percent of its US PC shipments since November 13, when the company released its $199 C7 model Chromebook. That’s small in absolute terms, but surprising in light of the nascence of Chrome, as well as the even greater novelty of Chromebooks with the right hardware and design (such as Samsung’s model) for Google’s minimalist operating system. Some have framed the issue as a windfall for OEMs, who now have even more leverage to call out the emperor’s new clothes that is Windows 8, since Chrome represents – at long last – a commercially viable non-Mac alternative to desktop Windows. But I think there are two more pressing questions that the apparent success of Chrome raises:

1) Is Chrome really a “desktop” OS?

2) Does Chrome provide hope for inexpensive laptops to beat back the tide of tablets?

Question 1 seems easy enough to answer on the surface. Chrome doesn’t run any native apps and almost hilariously cordons off your files (the hallmark of all desktop computing for 30 years) in an app called, well, Files. Everything runs side by side in the browser and notifications (Gmail, NYT, Google Talk) for anything come directly to the desktop – I would go so far as to say it dispenses with the very idea of a “browser,” since it is agnostic of the notion of “offline” existence and knows that, anymore, your devices are all doorsteps without a connection. Chrome OS is to the Internet what iOS was/is to file systems – it would rather you just not think about it/them.

And I think that it is this always-online existence – and more specifically, the way in which Chrome takes the Internet for granted – that makes both Chrome and the Chromebook line that runs it a possible foil to the storyline of laptops and especially netbooks completely giving way to mobile devices and tablets. PCs are in a rut for myriad reasons: bad software, price, and inefficiency. Why pay $1000 for an email and Facebook machine, after all? At the other end of the price spectrum, netbooks – cheap, modestly powered laptops running Linux or Windows – have suffered tremendously at the hands of the iPad in particular, which offers basically the same experience but with a better OS. Moreover, the iPad has crushed netbooks because iOS makes it extremely clear exactly what your device can do – your apps are clearly differentiated and displayed in a simple visual interface. What you see is what you get; no complex unfriendly file systems or cumbersome user interfaces.

But iOS, even amid the pain it has exacted on traditional PCs, still clings to the somewhat traditional idea of native apps – in fact, it is (in the user’s eyes) a catalog of native apps tweaked to the OS’s strengths and capabilities. The latter point is important in differentiating the iPad from a netbook – a netbook can theoretically try to run many of the more demanding Windows/Linux apps, but performance is bad, an example of users being given too much freedom which in turn leads to a poor experience. The Chromebook line is by almost any technical standard a “netbook” line. These laptops all use either very simple Intel processors or even ARM chips, have no optical drives, and are extremely cheap, with the C7 in particular available for a basically unmatched price.

But unlike traditional netbooks, the experience is carefully and adroitly managed. All “apps” more or less come from the Chrome Web Store and downloadable executable files are forbidden. An “app” tray simulates a traditional desktop computing environment, but lest you think you’re still in Kansas, note that all browser shortcuts (new tab, new incognito, etc) work directly from said desktop.

Basically, Chrome packages a radical new notion of computing – always online, with the whole Web integrated into or at least in close proximity to your apps – in a highly digestible package, much like iOS did when it debuted. And in doing so, it is redefining what a “netbook” or cheap computer even is and what it can do.  While it can’t compete with smartphones, it could grow into a real competitor most tablets, especially if Google actually makes a Nexus-grade Chromebook and further hybridizes Chrome and Android.

-The ScreenGrab Team

Windows Phone and “Communication”

I went to an AT&T store today to get my Nexus 4 fully activated. The experience ended up being much more positive than my admittedly low expectations had prepped me for. Along the way, the tech savvy clerk and I discussed his experiences with some of the devices in the store, specifically the HTC One X and the Nokia Lumia 920.

I won’t bore you with reviews of these phones, both of which are fantastic pieces of hardware that are flagship devices for their respective platforms. But in justifying his abandonment of the 920 in favor of the One X, he said that Windows Phone was good for “communicating” but not “much else,” with much of said “much else” being apps.

It reminded me of a recent TechCrunch piece about Nokia’s decline, in which the author argued that the Finnish giant lost its way when it became obsessed with improving the phone functionality of its services and not foreseeing that data would become more important than voice. Ironic then, that is partnership with Microsoft would end up bringing it back to the same behavior that necessitated such a partnership in the first place.

Microsoft and Nokia either fail to see that there is more value in data than voice/traditional comms or they simply can’t compete when it comes to data. I expect that the latter is true, primarily due to their tardiness in entering mobile with Windows Phone 7/8 (three years after the first iPhone, two years after the Android G1), but at the same time I think that they’ve failed to compete in part because they failed to see the value of data.

Windows Phone is in a way the software equivalent of Nokia’s current hardware: beautiful, totally different from anything in the mainstream, and barely used. As a “phone” – something that can make high-quality calls, sort thru contacts, and perform basic tasks, it’s fine, but when you try to do something as simple as peruse Twitter, it stumbles early and often.

If it’s not enough to simply “communicate” anymore, however, then the carriers themselves ought to be just a bit wary of the smartphone market’s vitality. While hoary institutions like SMS and cellular data are not shuffling of this mortal coil any time soon, the notion that the “phone” is the default communication device could be in trouble.

iMessage and Snapchat, whose combined scale is still small, are nevertheless two excellent examples of lightweight apps that would be right at home on a wearable device like Google Glass or the increasingly mythical iWatch “smartwatch.” And while such services would allow for “communication,” they would be data hogs first and foremost, with features like cellular calls and SMS likely taking a back seat to the various in-app walled gardens, or to some aggregation service like Google Now.

One could argue that we are already there with smartphones. I know people who have moved the iPhone Phone app to the dreaded junk folder along with defaults like Videos and Reminders. But the elite status of the iPhone is still seen in the huge prestige gap between it and the iPod, the latter of which has no competitors and is more about fun than a full mobile experience.

Oddly, the lackluster status of Windows Phone as a glorified feature phone could open the doors for Microsoft and Nokia to simply leapfrog the smartphone paradigm and release a must have wearable computer. This is what Apple did with the iPod: lagging badly in the CD burning race (the first iMacs shipped without one), it decided to just change the game rather than play catchup. The same can be said of what it did to netbooks with the iPad.

In any case this seems to confirm my ongoing pessimism about Windows Phone, its opportunities in China notwithstanding. “Communicating” isn’t enough, which of course is obvious in the smartphone era – but though the phone is still king for now, this decline in the value of traditional “communication” means that it is already losing ground to the very things (data, apps, services) that is so perfectly enables (via cellular networks).

Paradoxically, by not seeing that, Microsoft et all may be best positioned to exploit the shift – they could just throw in the towel when it comes to smartphones, and try their luck at something else. But I expect at some level that they do not so much “not see” that a smartphone’s value has more to do with data than call quality and specs, but that they instead have just not competed, in large part because they just don’t get what users want.

– The ScreenGrabTeam