Midnight Lunch Meeting with Beijing

You haven’t caught on to the new headset quickly enough. I’m sorry Jimmy, we’re going to have to let you go. Could you imagine? I’d be devastated.

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Image: Josan Gonzalez

Patrick Caughill at Futurism put together a list of Ray Kurzweil’s predictions, one of which relates to virtual reality (VR) and the future of work. Basically, brain-computer interfaces could precipitate a more ubiquitous “telepresent” workplace where we jack in whenever, from wherever—similar to what we do with our phones, but more immersive. That said, I’m not sure how this would play out in line at Starbucks.

“[Kurzweil] predicts VR will advance so much that physical workplaces will become a thing of the past. Within a few decades, our commutes could just become a matter of strapping on a headset.” I don’t know about 20 years, but at some point remote jacking will be a thing, even on Mondays.

There are benefits. Barring health concerns, VR could up productivity while downgrading the effects of isolation. Jacking in for a meeting every few is better than wasting away on a train. On Wall Street, my Queens commute vaporized an hour plus each way. More with bad weather. Talk about stress.

More than a third of the US workforce freelances in some form. That’s 55 million people. Research suggests that people who suffer from loneliness are prone to serious health problems. VR could bring reluctant loners into the fold, inspiring creativity and infusing a sense of community into the daily routine. Because we all need love.

With VR and venti latte in hand, Jimmy slayed work without sacrificing a single rep of gym time, and he’d never be late for Ramen again. Amen.

Good for Jimmy! But there’s something about meeting in person that beckons VR back to the corporeal. Here’s the thing about humans. We need face time. Facial and behavioral cues, however subtle, are the currency we use to navigate social contexts, especially in professional settings. Even now, leading a three-way from my cell isn’t half as good as Skype or Gchat—the limitations of which I can strongly affirm.

Space drives behavior, so this virtual gig better deliver. How and at what pace VR will cut through the noise is anyone’s guess. Will dropped calls be the same? Will the VR itself be a distraction? Either way, we’ll learn to live with the static until the interface improves. With any luck, we’ll get some work done, too. And that’s not all.

As Caughill points out, VR could even shift the urban landscape. “Without the need for people to live close to work, we could see unprecedented levels of de-urbanization. People will no longer need to flock to large cities for work or be tethered to a specific location.” I say wanderlust is more of a threat, but that’s just me.

With at least 6 billion people living urban by 2050, regardless of VR, the global economy will have its due. Hopefully, there will always be reasons for people to stay in cities. I don’t think the VR itself will make them come or go. I do believe, at least on a snowy day, it will make them happier.

Damn Algorithms

Work. It’s boring, exhausting, and counterintuitive to the creative problem solving that once drove American innovation. What the hell happened?

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Image: Tech mogul Tim O’Reilly, Jason Madara

Algorithms, that’s what. Google made it fashionable to boost the bottom line with them. Now, they’re little more than a way to save on labor. Tim O’Reilly describes this turning narrative as “a very dangerous time.”

How can algorithms give us more creative control over our work schedules? Or make it easier to collaborate remotely? How can they build trust and transparency, or fit 80 hours of work into 40? The world is smaller, our brains are bigger. It’s time we made an algorithm for working smarter.

The founder of O’Reilly Media has a huge influence on the role of tech in our lives, including the future of work. Now, he’s set his sights on job creators and “innovators” he thinks are more interested in making a buck than building products and services the world can use (video).

Is he right? Have we accepted the future as an extension of the past? How can a more sustainable workforce ensure an abundant future? Fair questions for a society on the brink of the automation apocalypse. But don’t fret.

O’Reilly says, “It’s still possible to reinvent the world. If we could make a more inclusive world with this technology, that would be a great gift.”

Is Facebook Undecided on Hate Speech?

fb-monster-50Facebook Friday (FBF). Facebook employs 7,500 to parse free speech from hate speech. But does it know the difference?

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Image: “Pretty Double-Headed,” Wangechi Mutu

This morning, The New York Times launched a clever crowdsourcing campaign to help determine whether or not six “deeply insulting” statements should qualify as hate speech on Facebook.

In June, ProPublica posted the hate speech rules Facebook uses to train its reviewers. It later came under fire for prioritizing white men over Black children in the screening process, prompting it to change its policy to cover age as a protected category. Some question the maneuver’s sincerity.

Muddying the water further is the platform’s policy on modifiers. For example, “women need to be hit in the head” does qualify as hate speech, because it advocates violence based on gender (a protected category). But “female sports reporters need to be hit in the head” does not qualify. Because, as the Times observes, including occupation in the attack “negates the protection based on gender.” Weird.

One ProPublica commenter says, “The idea of censorship of social media just feels like a slippery slope. When some humans are setting a rubric for other humans, however thoughtful and logical it may seem, it makes free speech meaningless.”

Another says, “They protect based on gender identity? Tell that to their ‘real name’ policy enforcers.” ProPublica is asking users to report hate speech through its Facebook page.

Did any of the answers surprise me? Sure. Facebook considers “white men are assholes” hate speech, but saying “poor black people should still sit at the back of the bus” is okay. If the social network has taught me anything, it’s how to judge a book by its cover. Am I crazy to think so?

The Web of Choice

TBT Fall 2011

Who would have thought the maxim, there is no spoon, could also conjure up the illusion of choice? Gladden Pappin says, “The filters which prevent web searches from going astray give you no hint about what course of action is virtue and what is vice.”

This subtle indictment of algorithmic bias reminds me of Sinclair’s critique on the contradictions of journalism, which (perhaps unfairly) depicts newsroom staff as “subordinates drifting inevitably toward the point of view held by their masters.”

For Pappin, varied views are fine when taken in moderation, because “when freedom equals unlimited choice, and when technology abolishes limits and with them purpose, everyone winds up having to make or discover the rules himself.” And what’s so wrong with that?

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Becoming a TechSoup Ambassador (PDF) is a great way to help humanitarians everywhere. Come, change the world with us!

When Club Kids Owned Berlin

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Image: Abandoned Berlin

The early techno scene in post-unification Berlin was something out of Mad Max. East Berlin had wasted for years, and by the time Reagan said, “tear down this wall,” a pack of club kids had inherited the empty war-torn city.

“That’s one big historical accident. Nobody could have anticipated anything like that,” says Tobias Rapp, pop culture editor at Der Spiegel. “The wall falls down and a small scene in West Berlin takes over huge empty spaces in East Berlin, so they celebrate the freedom.” It was the perfect experiment, reuniting kids from both sides. Rapp remembers squatting with friends, “running through this empty city looking for a party” (video).

The space was reclaimed eventually, but not before techno took root. Rapp and other pioneers have since legitimized the industry, which now accounts for a serious chunk of Berlin tourism.

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Image: The Fisher Body Plant 21 in Detroit, Thump

Look at Detroit today, where techno began, and you’ll see 80s East Berlin staring back at you. In 2013, the city became the largest in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy. It’s seen growth since, but some parts are so empty the city has a hard time providing services. Worst case scenario? Slipping into perpetual decay. In other words, becoming a giant slum that also happens to be the 21st most populous city in the country.

Dimitri Hegemann, founder of Berlin’s legendary club, Tresor, sees potential. “There’s a really good moment in Detroit now because there’s a new generation looking for an alternative way to start something,” he tells Thump in this 2014 interview. “The vibe is good. We could open some doors. We share similar energies, Detroit and Berlin.”

The tale of these two cities underscores the fragility, and promise, of urban settlements everywhere. Santa Fe Institute’s Luis Bettencourt asks if the challenge of slums, “the face of contemporary urbanization,” is more than just a phase. He believes a city should always enable socioeconomic creative potential. Techno’s migration to Germany ignited scenes in New York, London and Paris. Considering how club kids and squatters helped to shape Berlin, anything is possible for the city that inspired them.

Now, Detroit’s a case study on revitalization, innovative governance and co-design. Like Berlin, Detroit needs a new scene. What can the city learn from the pioneers of techno? I don’t know, why don’t we ask them?

I’m Indian Ocean Dreaming

Today, I sailed from the Red Sea to Hong Kong in 10 minutes. JeffHK on YouTube says, “Sailing on the open ocean is a unique feeling and experience. I hope to capture and share it for everyone to see.” With 80,000 photos and 15,000 GB of files, see why this 30-day time-lapse gives new meaning to the phrase, “from sea to shining sea” (video).

How Facebook Killed Fake News

fb-monster-50Facebook Friday (FBF) features news about the social network we love to hate. Today: Will the Wikipedia button slay fake news?

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image: Patrick Tomasso

It’s static, but it’s interesting. I get Wikipedia’s stringent rules for what is or isn’t legit. If the almighty wiki overlords sanction a button to rid the world of fake news, then bring it. Question is, where will it go? Facebook is riddled with tap-traps. Try tapping a pic and instead you’ve opened pandora’s box of pop-ups. Tags, filters, emojis—everything but the kitchen sink.

Adding Wikipedia to the FB clutter grenade without pulling the pin will take focus. And that’s a problem. Focus is the one thing Facebook doesn’t have.

Make Love, Not Flame War

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Image: “Circling Birdies,” Cheko

Is virtual reality (VR) the most disruptive platform yet? VR changes how we show, tell and use information. VR mirrors the real world. It has the power to disrupt the 2D humdrum of today’s social platforms, and offer a closer look at how we think, live and love.

If we use VR openly and inclusively, it could build empathy, and change the nature and depth of connection across the board. Make love, not war.

Apolis (uh–paul–iss) or “Global Citizen”

Apolis is a socially motivated lifestyle brand that empowers communities worldwide. It’s based on the idea that people can live better when they have equal access to the global marketplace. Like fair trade only better.

I found an article from 2013 buried in Evernote about two brothers using co-design principles to help communities that help themselves. Shea and Raan Parton travel across borders, documenting how various products are collaboratively made. They invite people to get involved by telling their stories, and they help local tourism and learn new cultures and customs in the process. Their Middle East project is the result of befriending people like Shlomy Azolay, an Israeli leather craftsman they found online. (Btw, Apolis means “global citizen” in Greek.)

Here’s what gets me: they worked together online for five years before meeting in person. That’s the power of social; sometimes a signal is all you need. If these guys can use social tech to create a global marketplace from scratch, imagine what it can do for the mom and pop next door.