Bookmarked The offloading ape: the human is the beast that automates – Antone Martinho-Truswell | Aeon Essays (Aeon)
It’s not tools, culture or communication that make humans unique but our knack for offloading dirty work onto machines
Antone Martinho-Truswell looks into the differences between humans and animals, suggesting that what stands us apart is cognitive and physical automation.

There are two ways to give tools independence from a human, I’d suggest. For anything we want to accomplish, we must produce both the physical forces necessary to effect the action, and also guide it with some level of mental control. Some actions (eg, needlepoint) require very fine-grained mental control, while others (eg, hauling a cart) require very little mental effort but enormous amounts of physical energy. Some of our goals are even entirely mental, such as remembering a birthday. It follows that there are two kinds of automation: those that are energetically independent, requiring human guidance but not much human muscle power (eg, driving a car), and those that are also independent of human mental input (eg, the self-driving car). Both are examples of offloading our labour, physical or mental, and both are far older than one might first suppose.

Although it can be misconstrued as making us stupid, the intent of automation is complexity:

The goal of automation and exportation is not shiftless inaction, but complexity. As a species, we have built cities and crafted stories, developed cultures and formulated laws, probed the recesses of science, and are attempting to explore the stars. This is not because our brain itself is uniquely superior – its evolutionary and functional similarity to other intelligent species is striking – but because our unique trait is to supplement our bodies and brains with layer upon layer of external assistance.

My question is whether some automation today is actually intended to be stupid or too convenient as a means of control. This touches on Douglas Rushkoff’s warning ‘program or be programmed. I therefore wonder what the balance is between automation and manually completing various tasks in order to create more complexity.

Listened 047: The Web is Neither Good or Bad…nor is it Neutral. It’s an Amplifier with Jeremy Keith from User Defenders Podcast
Jeremy Keith reveals how the web is neither good or bad, nor neutral, but an amplifier. He inspires us to not let the future be just something that happens to us, but rather something we make with the small things we do today. He encourages us to build software ethically with our users’ psychological vulnerabilities in mind. He motivates us to not build on rented land, but to publish using the superpower of our own URLs. He also shows us how looking to the past is just as important as looking to the future.
Here is a breakdown of the episode:

  • Iron Man Photo Story (4:43)
  • On Net Neutrality (13:31)
  • What’s “Adactio”? (20:44)
  • Is the Internet Good or Evil? (24:41)
  • Hippocratic Oath for Software Designers (35:51)
  • Resilient Web Design (49:06)
  • Why do you Love the Web so Much? (54:26)

The best of the web is people sharing what they know

  • The Power and Generosity of the Community (63:05)
  • What Comes Next? (71:34)
  • Listener Question? (73:44)
  • Last Words to the Builders of the Web (74:18)
Liked The Reality of Twitter Puffery. Or Why Does Everyone Now Hate Bots? (Medium)
I’ve never been one to feel the need to put on a lot of makeup in order to leave the house and I haven’t been someone who felt the need to buy bots to appear cool online. But I find it deeply hypocritical to listen to journalists and politicians wring their hands about fake followers and bots given that they’ve been playing at that game for a long time. Who among them is really innocent of trying to garner attention through any means possible?
Listened 2017 Boyer Lectures: Fast, Smart and Connected: What is it to be Human, and Australian, in a Digital World by Genevieve Bell from ABC Boyer Lecture
Thirty years ago, Professor Genevieve Bell left Australia to study anthropology in America. That journey took her to the heart of Silicon Valley, where she pioneered futurist research at Intel, looking at how different cultures use technology. Now she's returned home with an urgent conversation about the role of technology in building our future, and what it means to be human, and Australian, in a digital world.
Since 1959, the ABC has supported the Boyer Lectures to spark conversation. 2017’s series featured Genevieve Bell discussing our fast, smart and connected world:

01 | Fast, smart and connected: Where it all began

Bell begins by setting the context associated with technology for herself and Australia in general. She discusses her journey to Silicon Valley via a PhD in Anthropology. This serves as the starting point of a conversation about what it means to be human in a digital world:

We are not just passive by-standers in this digital world – we have been active creators of it. So it is time for another conversation, about our possible digital and human futures, and about the world we might want to make together.

She begins the story about technology by going beyond the usual story of Ada Lovelace, Bletchley Park and the human computers. She instead discusses the early computers in Australia – CSIRAC and SILLIAC – and how they compare with today’s technology.

Today’s computing had a million times as much memory for one-ten-millionth the power. Another colleague pointed out, that it would basically take 4 million CSIRACs to replace my current mobile phone, which would require most of the electricity in New South Wales, and most of the landmass too.

Although the processing power of these initial computers may not seem so significant now, they were behind a number of significant projects, including the building of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl These developments moved us from a world associated with what might be possible to what was actually happening, making speed the measurement of success.

02 | Fast, smart and connected: Dealing lightning with both hands

In the second lecture, Bell discusses how we have evolved from a focus on speed to incorporate connections.

Even if you don’t keep your smartphone within arm’s reach, and you don’t use Facebook, or Twitter or Instagram, or Snapchat or Tinder, you live in a world where your friends, your kids, your parents, your bosses, your politicians, your teachers, they all do, and where those services and their underlying ideas are shaping this world and how we live in it.

1978 announced the arrival of the first personal computer, the TRS80, a device that opened the world to a new digital world. Even if you are not a part of this personally, there is no doubt that you know someone who does. Bell discusses the rise of Silicon Valley, Douglas Engelbart’s demo, ARPANET’s initial network and the birth of the internet in 1989, reminding us that to approach the future, we first need to appreciate the past.

03 | Fast, smart and connected: All technology has a history (and a country)

Looking back at the typewriter, Bell explains how the design was about speed and efficiency. Associated with this, the story of Karel Capek’s play, R.U.R., where the term ‘robot’ derives:

In his play, a factory owned by a man named Rossum mass-produces mechanical creatures who resembled humans and who can be set to work. Over the arc of the play, the mechanical creatures become numerous and also increasingly unhappy, demanding the factory owners help give them more capacity — to reproduce, to love, to feel.

Ultimately the creatures are pitted against humans in an epic struggle that humans are bound to lose. Described variously as a satire, and later as science fiction, Capek’s play owes a great deal to both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the stories of the Golem, and, from this vantage point, I see Blade Runner and the story of the replicants.

Another addition to our world has been electricity. This was not straight forward. It involved negotiation between existing technologies.

There are important questions to ask. What is getting connected? Why? And how? What drives an infrastructure roll out? Efficiencies? A governmental or civic agenda? Cultural aspirations or experiences? Who is doing the connecting, and what is their motive? Will the network evolve and change over time? What are the measures of success and the driving forces? Who are the other voices in the story, and what might be their threads? And ultimately, what is the world that all this connecting will build?

04 | Fast, smart and connected: How to build our digital future

The last lecture begins with a quote:

Each of us, from the day he’s born, begins to deposit information about himself in various public and private files. By the time he emerges from school and the armed forces, the ordinary young adult cannot have escaped becoming the subject of at least a dozen personal information files. Our necessary social interdependence assures an acceleration at the rate at which personal data are accumulated and stored. Until yesterday it’s been manila folders; it becomes increasingly a computer record, which stores and organises an ever-wider range of data about each of us.

This was from Sir Zelman Cowen and his Boyer Lecture in 1969. In this last lecture, Bell unfurls how we got to now. She explains that Cowen’s prediction has clearly come into existence:

That data-centric world seemed benign at first — smartness that helped us. We gave up data about ourselves, and the technology around us got smarter. Devices and services knew us, gave us recommendations about food and books and movies and news, helped us remember passwords, and websites, and made sure we didn’t get lost or stuck in traffic. More recently those devices and services reminded us to walk more, to vote, to leave for the airport. They promised us better dates and hook-ups, better travel times, ticket prices, cheap data plans because we were in the airport, advanced warning for bush-fires in our area, and reminders to take umbrellas or wear sunscreen. They helped label our photos, and curate our memories, and find our friends. And it turns out they have been shaping our conversations, our views, and our attitudes.

Bell explains that one of the aspects that we need to consider is the intent associated with these developments. This takes us back to BF Skinner and the teaching machine:

Skinner viewed people as mechanistic systems, reducible to electrical impulses and operant conditioning. This matters, because the notion of the human that Skinner theorised still pervades AI today. Replace stimuli with data, and you see the same frame. AI is, at one level, just data in, and data out – measurable and mechanistic.

How do we balance between the utopian and dystopian stories being told about technology. So much of this is about the ethics and morality, rather than the actual technology itself. How then do we engage with this? What is the bigger vision? Bell argues that there are four things we can, and should do, in our smart, fast and connected digital world: build new approaches, invest in the (hard) conversations, strive for accountability, and make our own (Australian) future.

the next time you hear that story about killer robots, ask yourself: What is the history of this technology? Where did it come from? What are its vested interests? And who are its beneficiaries? And what logics about the world is it normalising? And most importantly, what is the broader context into which it fits?


This is a helpful resource in appreciating the current digital context. As we add Digital Technologies to the curriculum, Bell addresses some of the reasons why. In addition to this, she provides a wealth of resources to take further.

Liked Every User a Neo | Linux Journal (linuxjournal.com)
We can't be in control of our lives as long as those lives are contained by platforms and we lack the tools for mastery over our virtual bodies and minds online. It doesn't matter if Facebook, Google and the rest have no malicious intent, or if they really do want to "bring the world closer together", or to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" or to "develop services that significantly improve the lives of as many people as possible". We need to be free and independent agents of our selves.
Bookmarked The True Power of Technology (pernillesripp.com)
the true power in technology is not just the readiness. The skills. The playing around with tools to create something impossible. It is the power to be seen. To not be alone. To feel that in the world, someone values you. That someone out there gets you.
A like your point Pernille. My only concern is that connections are not always guaranteed. As Bill Ferriter explains in regards to audience, connections are not a given, especially when we expect them to have certain comments. Here I am reminded of Clive Thompson’s argument about it being harder to write for ten than ten thousand:

Going from an audience of zero to an audience of ten is so big that it’s actually huger than going from ten people to a million.

Although connections are powerful, it is important to not over-hype the hoped for outcomes. All that we can do is create the conditions for comments. A point Kathleen Morris makes.

Liked Google and Facebook are watching our every move online. It's time to make them stop by Gabriel Weinberg, CEO and founder of DuckDuckGo (CNBC)
Google, Facebook hidden trackers follow users around the web at alarming rates, says DuckDuckGo's CEO Gabriel Weinberg. To make any real progress in advancing data privacy this year, we have to start doing something about them. Not doing so would be like trying to lose weight without changing your diet. Simply ineffective.
Replied Technology isn’t the problem by Greg Whitby (bluyonder.wordpress.com)
I believe the bigger question is how we as a society, respond to the seismic shifts happening. Since we can’t ignore the digital age, we must find ways of navigating the new frontier including what we deem as acceptable and appropriate use at home, at work and at school. Banning mobile phones is not a solution, it’s a reaction to the massive waves of ever-changing technologies. There’s an air of anti-intellectualism in all of this – a fear of the new sciences that was just as evident in the time of Galileo. 
This is a useful provocation Greg for a wider discussion. To ‘ban’ mobile devices seems more convenient than embracing the opportunity. My only concern is that too often we embrace the smartphone without stopping to critique the implications for data, surveillance and commerical influence. The question that we need to ask is whether it is ethical and maybe start from there?
Liked Parent Responsibility for Learning with the Digital by mallee (schoolevolutionarystages.net)
The ability of schools, even the most visionary, to match the learning with the digital provided outside the school walls, is impossible. Schools as public institutions controlled by government, bureaucrats, resourcing, working conditions, legislation, law, accountability requirements, inflexible organizational structures and history can never respond to the accelerating digital evolution and transformation in the same way as the highly agile digitally connected families of the world. Even if governments wanted its schools to change, or indeed to collaborate with the families.
Listened 005: Austin Kleon – Pencil vs Computer by Jocelyn K. Glei from Hurry Slowly
I speak with artist and writer Austin Kleon — best known for his book Steal Like an Artist — about the benefits of using analog tools in a digital world. We talk about Austin’s own unique office setup, which features an analog desk and a digital desk, and the unexpected power of going slow ...
Jocelyn K. Glei’s key takeaways were:

Why the best work often germinates in the analog space and gets executed in the digital space
How moving your body in physical space can act as a “brain reset” to help you shift your focus
When you should use a pencil and when you should use a keyboard as you execute on your ideas
How the constraints of analog (pen, paper, books, etc) can super-charge your creativity
Why the impulse to edit and/or tweak immediately can shut down the creative process
How writing things by hand helps you learn better and infuses them with meaning

Something that stood out to me what Kleon’s point that once you have it, you realise you don’t need it.