A new approach

From now on I’m going to post lots of practical ideas. Here’s why…

As the world grapples with COVID 19, our use of and dependance on technology has become very exposed. For many people the only reason they are still employed is because technology enables them to work remotely. Not only that but the technology to do so is now so simple to use that the transition to working from home could happen in a matter of days.

On the other hand it has also been the ubiquity of the technology that has brought the horror of disease into every minute of our lives and created fear and uncertainty for the future.

International travel has spread the Coronavirus worldwide, but as we have gone into lockdown we have also noticed that our own local travel has slowly over years destroyed all our local small businesses. We miss them now as our travel is restricted and hopefully they will slowly come back. On the other hand internet based delivery services mean that we can still receive goods while in lockdown.

This blog will take a change in direction. While I will still intersperse with philosophical ramblings the main focus will be in practical postings of how technology can be applied in a more sustainable and resilient way. These stories will always cut both ways, with every benefit there comes a cost. As Don Ihde would say, technology has an amplification reduction effect.

The answer to life, the universe and technology is…

Kim Jackson in the QBusiness section of the Sep 2018 Qantas magazine is asked about Tech gadgets that didn’t change her life – ‘is technology that doesn’t change your life even technology?’

In the concept of ‘dasein’, the philosopher Martin Heidegger proposes that our very existence is defined not only by our internal selves but also by the environment we interact with. Dasein or being-in-the-world is represented as the interaction between human and world by the notation human-world. Let’s take this as a plausible hypothesis and see where it leads.

Don Ihde builds on Heidegger’s concept by suggesting that technology intermediates our interaction with the world which can be notated as human-technology-world. In intermediating this interaction, technology naturally amplifies some aspects of the world while reducing others. For example, if I use a telescope to look at the moon I sacrifice being able to see the whole night sky in return for getting more detail on one aspect of it – for example the craters on the moon.

In doing so some interactions we have are directly with technology such as reading a temperature gauge (the hermaneutic relations) while in others we perceive the technology as an extension to our selves (the embodiment relations). Ihde gives the example of driving a car. An experienced driver will operate the car almost subconsciously in order to get to their destination (embodiment) but if there is a fault will become aware of the gauges and instruments to determine what is wrong (hermaneutic).

Philosopher Peter-Paul Verbeek takes this concept to another level in defining a set of technological mediations. He notes that, as Kim Jackson above muses, technology necessarily changes our lives. Verbeek adds a number of relations to the embodiment and hermaneutic – the background relation where technology controls as aspect of the world (eg a heating system); and the alterity relation where we interact directly with technology to get a service (eg an ATM).

Verbeek also notes that as technology progresses the nature of our technology use changes. Embodiment relations are shifting from external assistive tools to fully integrated cybernetics. Background relations are shifting from ‘dumb’ control functions to AI based smart systems that independently adjust to our needs and preferences. There is no doubt that these change our lives and indeed our selves and even what it means to be human.

This raises a new set of challenges for technologists. Every technology brings its advantages and disadvantages. As a technology is adopted it meets various levels of resistance and often has unanticipated side effects. Yet the pace of change is increasing.

Learning to value ZERO Management

A couple of weeks ago I ran a session with my team about creating a shared purpose – the WHY? for our existence. I wanted to explain how it is important to have a common origin point from which to make decisions about good or bad, positive or negative. I used the example of the development of the number zero – a fairly recent development in the field of numbers.

It appears (within the fuzzy limits of the information that is available about this topic) that the number zero was conceived of in at least two stages. Initially zero was just a placeholder – a // to separate counting numbers where there was nothing to count – eg. 50210 would be 5//21//. Then it evolved as a real number, an integer between -1 and 1. It therefore occurs to me that there is a distinct difference between the nothing of null and the something of zero – null is not a point of reference but zero is.

Several years ago I had the privilege of leading a new team that was responsible for support and development of the learning management system at a large Melbourne university. The support and development functions had previously been seperate and were brought together into one stream.

The support team was proud of it’s customer service record and of the number of tickets they were able to handle in peak periods. I agreed that the ability to efficiently handle calls while providing a good customer service is a key operational metric for a support team. However, what would be a key innovation metric for such a team?

I posed the question – ‘What is the ideal number of calls a support team should answer?’ Reluctantly, with some discussion the team agreed that ZERO was the ideal number as it means that people are not having problems. However, this number also poses a threat – what would happen to a support team that has no calls?

The reality is that while ZERO should be the goal, it will never be achieved. We will always need to provide support for systems. Yet, innovating to minimise the number of calls allows the team to focus on creativity, rather than operations. This means more exciting work, new opportunities and providing a better and more up to date service.

Conclusion? In an operational team, the more work we can do to eliminate or automate the routine the more time we have for creativity and further innovation. That’s great for the coal face but what about management.

So let’s turn the question around – ‘What is the ideal amount of management that a senior staff should do?’ The answer, once again is ZERO. Management is an overhead to be minimised or eliminated – it is a cost that provides no value. But, just like with the support team, it will never be possible to reach the ideal. Management is important to ensure that teams are efficient and productive. So if we minimise management, what is it that senior staff should be doing. The answer, of course, is leadership. Management distracts from leadership, just like operations distracts from innovation.

It is therefore unfortunate that so many position titles are Manager (or even worse Director), that reinforce the wrong type of focus. We should be mindful that the value is in leadership. OK – so if that is true, then what do we do? I found an interesting Forbes article that may give a clue. For now, off to read my dusty old copy of Ghost in the Machine.

When real is better than virtual

kodak_dc220_zoom_frontMy first full time professional job was working in a science and technology centre in Geelong. A big part of the role of this centre was to make new technologies available to local high schools. One of our popular offerings was around digital photography. Students would take photos with a Kodak digital camera and process them using photoshop. These classes were exciting for students and their teachers were amazed by how quickly images could be manipulated – comparing the single click actions in Photoshop to the days of darkroom work that would be required to achieve the same effect.

It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered the joy of developing my own black and white photos when I did an evening course. Yes, certainly it took a lot longer to work in the dark room but the experience of timing the exposure and development of photos and watching in the low red light as my pictures appeared in front of me had a totally different learning effect on me than clicking on the right option in Photoshop. It wasn’t so much that one experience was better than the other – both would lead to the same effect – but more that my subjective experience of ‘learning’ was much greater during the evening course.

The premise of this post is that while high-tech is a significant enabler of learning, it should not be adopted blindly without understanding the relative merits of low-tech alternatives. In particular we should be careful to understand not just what we gain but also what we lose from using the virtual over the real. Working with such an awareness will lead to more appropriate adoption of technology and a richer set of learning outcomes.

Don Ihde in Technics and Praxis talks about the amplification/reduction effects of technology and the fact that it is important to be aware of both the positive and negative effects that may be associated with the use of any technology. This is a great moment to take an aside and just remember that the term technology is broader than just devices and internet. Doug Horton’s article that claims teaching is technology creates a fantastic perspective on this.

Technology assisted learning lends itself to basic teaching of skills and capabilities – of transmitting knowledge. While it is certainly also possible to be creative in a virtual or online environment, this creativity is very constrained as it is limited by the narrow rules of the system. True creativity therefore requires direct interaction with people and the natural environment.

In his book Last child in the woods Richard Louv talks specifically about the example of heart surgeons who leave university with a high level of theoretical knowledge but without having ever physically pulled apart a pump. Thus the most highly qualified heart surgeons are completely incapable of doing their jobs when starting their hospital intern-ships. Louv also talks in great detail about the broader impacts of limiting student access to nature, which leaves the question whether excessive focus on technology is in fact not only limiting learning but also the physical and mental well-being of our students.

In our own household we can relate to this need for balance. Our current battle with our primary school aged children is Minecraft vs. real craft. It is clear that the kids are stimulated creatively when building and exploring their worlds in Minecraft. But similarly it is also clear that this is a creativity that is bounded by rules that are about as blocky as the graphics that go with them. Their real world craft – be it with clay or wood or fabric – engages them in fine motor skills, allows for far greater variation and is much more conducive to real original thoughts.

As with everything the result is that there are benefits to both technology supported learning and technology-‘free’ learning activities. The former allows for much greater breadth of information and speed of access and allows concepts to be explained through rich media. The latter allows for a broader range of real creative outcomes, is more granular and promotes a deeper tactile level of understanding – including fine motor skills.

It is interesting to see that this year the NMC Horizon Report has picked up on the need to balanced our connected and disconnected lives and it will be fascinating to see how this topic evolves. It is also interesting to note that the NMC Technology Outlook for Australia also sees the need to balance our connected and unconnected lives as a key challenge, and includes the need to be authentic in both learning experiences and assessment as being additional considerations.



Hack Week – Project 1: Grocking signals with Sigrok and PulseView on the LCSoft EZUSB development board

Having good test equipment is essential to hardware hacking when you want to see what is going on ‘inside’ the devices you are hacking. A signal analyser is a great tool for digital work, but can be a bit pricey for the amateur.

Luckily the Chinese company LCSoft sells a development board based on the CY7C68013A chip that acts as a USB logic analyser (approx $AU10 on Ebay). This article explores initial steps in getting such a board working under Ubuntu 12.04 using the latest Sigrok and PulseView software.

Continue reading

Technosociety and conviviality

I am currently reading Bruce Sterling’s ‘Shaping Things‘. Amongst fantasies about future technologies, it comes to mind that there may be some value in considering technosocial context when evaluating how convivial a tool is. In the same way as a spime is of little value in a hunter-gatherer society, so the artifact is of limited value to a wrangler.

Sterling encourages us to also consider the metahistory to consider what may be an appropriate and acceptable design solution in any given social context. He notes that we may be able to free ourselves of that metahistorical constraint to take an alternative path, taking an interventionist approach (so long as that approach does not become totalitarian). He notes the importance of free access to information (open access) to ensure that the negative aspects of intervention can be balanced by an informed populace.

I like the following quote:

‘A society that can’t sustain itself may have
strong ideas about its metahistory,
but objectively speaking it has no future’

I also love to listen to Bruce Sterling speak…

And remember that it was Bruce’s Veridian Design Movement that has led to the ‘bright green’ environmental approach that is embodied by the ‘Worldchanging‘. The associated book of the same name was incipiently the first thing that got me thinking that it might really be possible to do something about creating a more sustainable world – taking a much more positive and optimistic approach than was being dished out by the likes of Al Gore and Tim Flannery at the time.

The solution is: centralise and constrain(?)

We all know that universities are businesses, right? We all know that education is a product, OK? And in order to produce a nice consistent shrink wrapped ‘education’ product, many universities rely heavily on IT. So it stands to reason that the IT department is centralised and provides a set of consistent services to the whole organisation. Now obviously this contradicts the goals of the convivial approach I am researching.

In the book ‘Deschooling Society‘, Ivan Illich sets out to do quite a scathing review of the effects of productised education on  individual creativity and freedom. In fact Illich’s writings are a much broader critique of modernisation and one has to ask whether or not his flavour of utopia is even possible. A central theme of these writings is that consistent education placates us into compliance – to become either the educated and valuable graduates or the uneducated and unskilled dropouts that the modern world requires to feed its various machinery – or more recently the desk jobs of its knowledge economy.

The above premise is questioned by Seth Godin in his book ‘Linchpin‘. He argues that the modern world in fact promotes education and certification but rewards those people who think outside the box. He outlines the fact that the security provided by the modern organisation is fading and that the real benefits are going to people who take risks and make themselves indispensable. He even argues that these are in fact the people that organisations will attempt to retain and promote.

The particular educational organisation I work for runs a central IT department (which I work in – so don’t rock the boat, right) and provides a consistent and locked down desktop PC environment to all staff. I have avoided using this for the best part of the past decade (yes, I have been there for over 11 years), but found myself forced to resort to the desktop PC yesterday to complete a (very overdue) report. Needless to say I failed in the attempt and I lost an enormous amount of work when the machine, which erases itself to a clean configuration on each reboot, decided to disconnect from the network drive I was writing to. This is a situation I had been pretty much immune to since I have started to bring in my own laptop self configured  and maintained (with a convivial operating system, Ubuntu, and open-source software).

It is interesting to note that on another front convivial tools are sneaking into the organisation. We have recently moved our email system to the cloud, implementing Google Mail. Along with this came a range of other Google services. One such service that is finding much popular use is Google Sites. It was Google Sites that formed part of a recent meeting discussion. A discussion that started with the question of how to best use this new service quickly turned to concerns about security, data management, accessibility and consistency of look and feel. How do we manage Google Sites?

Well, the answer is quite simple. You don’t and you shouldn’t. It’s a runaway train. Some sites will appear for a brief moment before they disappear due to lack of interest and content. Some sites will be well maintained and become reference sites for all. In some cases this might be problematic when staff leave the organisation and orphan their site. But mostly this will be a very creative space where, like the rest of the internet, the good stuff will become popular and linked to and the bad stuff will be filtered out by lack of use. This is conviviality at its best – everyone has an equal chance to show their creativity and impress. No – it is not suitable for everything.

A lot of our technical reference material is now being moved into these sites. It is interesting to note the approach being used by the team. The content currently resides in a wiki. Several years ago we moved from one type of wiki to another. Instead of engaging in an extensive migration project to move our content, we simply made one site read-only and transferred the content that was needed over time into the new wiki. Eventually the new wiki – and now the new Google Sites – contained all the material that was still relevant and the old site could be switched off. This way only the valid and accurate content was transferred.

There is light at the end of the tunnel on the PC front too. We are currently rolling out a new Windows 7 PC environment and are aiming to provide anywhere anytime computing facilities including BYOD (bring your own device). With a little luck the above concerns will be a thing of the past in the next 6 months. This will also be a win for convivial tools and will support Seth Godin’s hypothesis that large profit driven organisations (like universities ;)) can benefit from encouraging their staff to be diverse and creative. Now just don’t tell the students or they’ll realise they can learn all this stuff just as well for free online.

Getting all convivial.

When you start to look into innovation and technology, sooner or later you end up reading Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality. This great challenging book seeks to turn the world on its head and create a completely transformed society. Along the way it provides some interesting insight into how individual creativity can be amplified and maximised using convivial tools.

Currently I am doing an investigation into how I might discover more convivial tools. That search has led me to the following article on the characteristics of convivial tools, by Michael Slattery. To help visualise these characteristics, I reinterpreted  Michael’s text description into the following diagram.



For the purpose of developing a measure of how convivial a tool is, it appears that the following characteristics are most important:

1. Usability

2. Repairability

3. Durability

4. Environmental friendliness

5. Promotion of Autonomy

6. Social friendliness

I think there is also something interesting about the bottom characteristics as basic building blocks:

1. Robustness

2. Simplicity

3. Modularity

4. Open Access

These items appear to underpin all the others. More investigation needs to occur.












Technology descent – the slippery slope of reskilling

As high technology becomes ubiquitous we use it for all manner of trivial tasks. But this may not always be the case. If we hit the limits of our resource and energy reserves we may be in for an interesting situation. How will we reintroduce the ‘basic’ skills to our local communities when the ever advancing tide of the Internet is reversed and the globalised markets cannot deliver anymore? Who still knows how to do that stuff anyway? Continue reading

Agility – a sustainable practice?

Software development is not easily linked to sustainability – IT is a high growth, high energy business and is about as far away from being truly sustainable as we can get. And yet in the case of modern software systems, as in the case of sustainable development, we often face a task that is difficult to fully understand or specify at the start. In software development, agile methods are adopted to address this complexity. Does this provide us with any lessons for sustainability? Continue reading