Monday, 26 January 2015

Notifications Off

While away in the States recently I turned off notifications in the various apps on my phone to save on data, and then turned off notifications entirely when I got home, I found I was enjoying the silence.

In that silence I started thinking about operant conditioning and just how wired to our personal devices we've become.  Digital distraction is a cultural phenomenon with people wringing their hands over rising vehicle accident rates and people falling into open manhole covers.  We tend to forget that looking at a screen when we should be doing something else is a choice.  We'd rather play the victim than accept that kind of responsibility.

The dreaded notification is at the core of this idea of being victimized by digital distraction.  There is a simple fix though: turn them off.  Your social media is all still waiting there for you, the only thing you're missing is immediacy, but that urge to respond quickly points to a deluded sense of self importance; despite what you think, most people aren't pouring over their social media waiting for you to post something.

I didn't get data while I was away, I figured I'd get by with wifi when I could find it.  This quieted the noise even more, making me wonder why I'd want a device constantly demanding my attention in the first place.  

The lack of data made me very conscious of the urge to post as events are happening.  You see this all the time at sports events.  A game winning goal gets scored and instead of cheering people are taking bad photos and spending time putting them online.  It happens in concerts too.  People spend bucket loads of money and time getting to these events only to view them through a smartphone screen, or ignore it entirely while they create social media posts.

You get this urge when you're in the middle of something fantastic to want to share it immediately like a live news broadcast, but your social media audience isn't watching a show, they come and go.  Audiences on social media aren't like audiences on broadcast media, they are never all in the same place at the same time.  That sense of urgency is you misunderstanding how social media is different from broadcast media.  Sure, take a picture, but if you don't post it in the next 30 seconds your ratings aren't going to drop.  Your production team isn't going to be out of a job.

Social media is inherently addictive.  It is designed to provide an
unconditioned stimulus response.  It doesn't take long to tie the
notification to that initial, unconditioned response.
Our approach to smartphone use needs to evolve.  Having a general purpose, networked computer in your pocket shouldn't mean you're on the social media hook 24/7.  A good first step is to try and view your social media use from a more accurate perspective, don't get sucked into a false sense of immediacy with it.  Enjoy being where you are, maybe snap a picture to share later when you've got a quiet moment.  Whatever you do don't miss what you're doing because you're viewing it through a smartphone screen, or ignoring it while you're making social media updates about it.  In spite of what you might think, you're not a media personality, even if you do have 1000 friends on Facebook.

A good first step is to turn off notifications.  It'll all still be there waiting for you, but you won't be a Pavlovian experiment in distraction when you interact with it.  This will probably upset mobile service providers who are making a mint from over-priced travel packages designed to keep you 'connected'.  You'll probably also find your interactions take on a more nuanced and thoughtful appearance; something else it would be nice to see more of on social media.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

We're Not Ready For This: A.I.

I saw this the other day:

He goes over deep learning, self-directed computer intelligence for the first fifteen minutes or so and summarizes at about 17:00 minutes.  The social implications of deep machine learning are quite profound.

Here are some other artificial intelligence related media that you might want to peruse:

Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near (a long and tedious mathematical read with some wonderful implications mixed in.)

Her, Spike Jonze' deep ode to A.I.:

A lot of Hollywood A.I. talk falls short into HAL type horror, but this one doesn't, it goes all the way.  By the end you'll be questioning our short comings rather than fearing what a superior intelligence might do.  I wonder what Kurzweil thought of the A.I. in this film and what it ends up doing.

Better education doesn't help? Work is irrelevant? What do we do
in a world of human pets that serve no real function in terms of survival?
This could be an age of unprecedented creativity, or the beginning of the end.
The TED talk has an interesting moment in those final two minutes where Howard is talking about the social implications of an imminent (the next five years!) machine intelligence revolution.  He talks about computers taking over jobs that we consider to be human-only and doing them better than people ever could.  This isn't about coding a better piece of software, it's about computers coding themselves in a never ending cycle of improvement.  It's also about people no longer having to be responsible for their own survival decisions.

What happens to insurance companies when automotive accidents are a thing of the past?  Accidents don't happen when the A.I. managing it can not only control the car in question, but also move the entire traffic jam up ten feet to avoid accidents.  This is often misunderstood as people say that A.I. driven vehicles could have bad code that causes a massive pile up.  These aren't machines running code, these are machines that create code as they need it, kind of like people do, but much faster, and with absolute precision.  And however well they do it now, they'll do it better tomorrow.

What happens to human beings when they are no longer
responsible for their own survival?
The busy truck driver still needs to sleep, what replaces him won't.  It'll never drive tired or hungry or angry or distracted either.  It'll only ever use the least amount of gas to get where it's going.  One of the tricky things about trying to grasp human superior A.I. is in trying to envisage all the ways that it would be superior.  That superior A.I. would never stop improving, it would take over any concept of efficiency in business.

As Howard says, machines that are able to build machines in a continuously improving manner are going to make the social change caused by the industrial revolution look like a blip on the radar.

Perhaps the hardest implication of a machine intelligence revolution is the idea that your income is tied to your usefulness.  Our entire society is predicated on the idea that your income somehow reflects your usefulness.  If human usefulness is no longer tied to social status, what would society look like?

During the big market bailouts in 2008 someone online described business as the cockroaches that feed off the work of human society.  He suggested that you don't feed them steak, you just let them thrive on the waste.  The implication was that capitalism is a necessary evil that serves human beings, not the other way around as it's often stated (people are a necessary evil in capitalism).

The idea that people could be free to pursue their own excellence in the future without having to work for the cockroaches is quite thrilling, though it would require a huge jump in social maturity for human beings.  We'd have to begin identifying our own self worth through our own actions rather than our education and employment.  I suspect most people aren't close to that.  We'd also have to recognize that everyone has a unique and valuable place in society, which sounds like socialism!

Education is as guilty as any social construction in aiming children towards the idea of success being employability and income.  We stream students according to their intellectual capital and then tell them to work hard in order to achieve financial success in the future.  The very idea of effort is tied to financial success - something we'd have to change in a machine intelligent future.  Can humans value themselves and seek excellence without the yoke of survival hung around their necks?

Universal income is an idea being floated in Switzerland and elsewhere.  If the future is one where people are no longer integral to their own survival, we better find something other than a survival instinct to base our self value on, or we're going to quickly run out of reasons for being.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Metacognition Missteps

What Mr. Cleese is so eloquently describing above is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, something that didn't receive a moment of notice in the metacognitive PD we recently received.  Metacognition is often seen as a way to encourage student directed learning, and I'm generally a fan of the idea, but this bias deserves some consideration, especially if we're trying to improve student learning.

In trying to break this down I came up with the Venn diagram to the right in hopes of understanding what should be a process toward enlightenment rather than a barrier to it.

There is a degree of stupidity so intense that it is self-consuming.  People trapped in that tend to reinforce their own ignorance and simply can't hear alternative points of view, even if they are self evident.  These people tend to wallow in limited, habitual action.  If you want to see it happening watch most digital natives on a computer.  In that kind of stupidity you're going to be hard pressed to learn anything, let alone expect any kind of accurate self assessment.

Ignorance is bliss, you're going to be happy if you think you know everything.  Anyone who lives in an Earth centred universe and thinks their species the darling of creation is that kind of certain-happy.  People like this make a point of surrounding themselves with like minded people.

If you can begin to take in evidence from around you, certain self-evident truths will begin to make you question your beliefs.  That would get you out of the stupid vortex and into ignorance.  The more you realize you don't know, the more rapidly you're able to move toward knowledge.  Humility is a vital component in this process, and where metacognition could begin to help.

In the realm of knowledge you may know many things but your experience with them is limited, so while you know theory you are unable to successfully interact with it in reality - this is one of the reasons I enjoy teaching tech so much (reality doesn't coddle you in your learning).  You've read about riding a bicycle but you've never done the deed.  The final step is to do as well as know, only then do you graduate from talking head to doer.

Metacognition is a valuable tool in creating the kind of self-aware humility that can move you from ignorance to knowledge, but applying it too early will push you in the wrong direction.  At the early stages of learning you are incapable of knowing what you don't know, so you'll think you're better at something than you are.  This appears especially true in mind based, academic work because your math equation doesn't burst into flames when you do it wrong.

At no point did our metacognitive training suggest that there was a threshold where you should (carefully) begin to implement self-analysis of learning, rather, it was suggested that we do this continually and throughout, which appears to be just what you shouldn't do if you want to get somewhere with it.

I like the DIY motive here, but getting to "learning to self correct" is a tricky step
that can push you the wrong way if you do it too soon.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

In The Crowds: Scripted Experiences

I'm just back from my first trip to California.  Having visited it so many times virtually, I was surprised at how different the place is from how it frames itself.  Like a movie set, Southern California has a face that looks good while hiding a lot of things that don't work.

My favourite parts of California were the real bits: the coast, Joshua Tree Park, Mount Palomar.  It got dodgy for me the minute we wandered into the invented places, strangely also the most crowded places.

We're all victims of our own childhood.  My parents spent ours taking us camping.  When we went to The States we visited family and hung out on the beach.  In Florida we went to the Kennedy Space Centre, but never Disneyworld.  This might have had as much to do with how much disposable income we had as it did with our interests.

Going to California for the first time, my wife, who has fond memories of attending Disneyworld as a kid, wanted to show me Disneyland.  I've had a long personal history with Disney.  It was what we watched as a family on Sunday nights on TV growing up.  The first film I ever saw was Jungle Book.  Being an animator at Disney was a long time dream.  I'm anything but a Disney hater, but I've never had an interest in going to their theme parks.

Going on Christmas Day with thousands of giddy people in mouse ears felt like attending some kind of cult meeting.  I don't do well in crowds and this particularly day is one of the busiest the park has.  I enjoyed various aspects of the park, but at the end of a hot, sweaty, crowded day, what it did most was clarify for me the difference between a shallow, scripted experience and a genuine one that offers depth of narrative.

I used to enjoy amusement park rides, but nowadays if I want a thrill I'll scare myself for real on a motorcycle rather than sitting like a lab mouse in a centrifuge.  I prefer a situation where my own skill dictates the quality of the physical experience.  This also ensures that the experience will be mine instead of what is spoon fed to me.  Two people on a rollercoaster walk away with the same cookie cutter experience.  Two people riding motorbikes on a mountain road do not.

My son isn't a fan of rides either, so we tended toward shows and entertainment rather than lining up to strap into spinning things.  The Star Wars tour, Pirates of the Caribbean and various stage shows all offered a focus on entertainment rather than vacuous adrenaline.  Disneyland tends to focus on immersion in the Disney ethos, so you can easily go to the park and not once get on a spinny ride.  Having said that, we didn't go on 'It's a Small World' because it would have taken two hours of lining up to see just how small the world is.

People get in their vehicles and sit in traffic to get to Disney World, where they line up to get into the park, and then line
up to get on this ride where they then sit in traffic.  Some people's idea of fun is completely foreign to me.
Strangely, I'm more than happy to shift into a more passive mode and follow a narrative on the screen.  Experiences that use digital technology to create interactive, sensory experiences are quite interesting to me.  In our time in California we also went to Universal and did the Minion Mayhem ride, which is a great example of advanced digital media being used to create an experience, it feels like a roller coaster with a plot.  Pirates of The Caribbean also was remarkably immersive with complex robotic tableaus that told a story.  Star Tours was a nice mix of both, with a smartly done interactive line up that leads to a digitally immersive ride; I can get lost in narratives like those.

Now that I'm back in school I can't help but consider these 'amusement park' experiences in terms of learning.  There is such a strong emphasis on engagement at all cost that many classrooms have taken on the giddy quality of the spiny ride, complete with lineups to get on the digital tools needed.  Any experience that comes out of it tends to be scrambled if retained at all, and the idea of patiently building deeper understanding doesn't have a chance.  The hook becomes the reason for the lesson rather than anything you can immerse yourself in and take away afterwards.

I've heard students talk about how they 'did' a rollercoaster - as though their interaction with it somehow affected the outcome.  The rollercoaster did them, they didn't do the rollercoaster.  When students talk about video games designed to deliver you to a conclusion I feel the same way - the game played you, you didn't play the game.  When failure is never an option, you never get to succeed at anything.  It's the difference between real and not real experience.  I'm willing to bet that, if surveyed, the majority of students would feel that their education was something that was done to them rather than anything they had a say in the outcome of.

When I think of those millions who press their way through Disney to see concrete starfish plastered on walls when real ones are only a few miles away at the beach, I wonder what it is we're aiming at in terms of engagement.  Giving people what they want is often pointless when what they want is empty.