machine-person interfacing (a case study on virtual chattels)

White microwaveTwo objects under discussion today which behave in exactly the same way.  The first is a white microwave of European proportions which we own.  I say of European proportions, because at least one American friend of mine has a microwave which looks more like an IMAX cinema screen than the kind of microwave I’m used to using!

Oh, and the photo was taken about half an hour ago; the clock reflects unfairly our time zone.


White washing-machineThe other object I’d like to draw your attention to is a washing-machine/dryer of medium-sized proportions.

It does its job rather well.

We’re very happy (touchwood!) with its performance.  In particular compared to the previous brand we had.

It even dries quite competently for a multi-use machine.

But the goal of today’s post isn’t to simply draw your attention to a couple of photos.  More importantly, it’s to describe how their design philosophies affect how I relate to them and feel about them.

Both appliances have acquired singular attitudes: and I’m not sure I really like the attitudes they’ve acquired.

Microwaves always had them, right from the start: when a heating-up cycle was finished, they would ping.

But washing-machines didn’t do this at first.  The one we now own – or perhaps I should say, which now owns us! – pings when it finishes a washing cycle, pings when it gets to the end of a dry, almost pings for practically any reason at all.

And as I’ve already said, you get the feeling they no longer belong to you but – rather – that you belong to them.

They – their designers – would say, I’m sure, that it’s all in the interests of the moderately forgetful souls we human beings are.  But I’m not sure: I’m more inclined to believe such processes encourage us to become even more forgetful than we were.

From Google search to GPS and satnavs, more and more we lose our facility to remember key data – in the absence of any need, that is, and in the presence of a total dependence on the gadgets which now remind us.

I woke up this morning wondering if it wouldn’t be possible to disable the pinging on the microwave.  I wanted to feel once more that this creature was mine, and that I was its lord instead of the other way round.  Of course, this seems unlikely, especially when stickers warn darkly of the dangers of opening white boxes in an unauthorised way.

So maybe we are stuck with progress as the designers conceptualise it.  But it doesn’t have to be that way surely.  As I remarked the other day in relation to Gmail, the consequences of not communicating our dissatisfaction with such decisions can be quite unhappy and frustrating for particular individuals.  Perhaps, then, we need to see if others think the same: gather together like-minded souls in some online environment or other in order to transmit our fears about the way designers are going.

If the Internet of Things does end up irreversible and inevitable, at the very least let us try to ensure we own it.

I’d hate, really hate, to think the future we’re bequeathing to our children’s generation involved converting them into virtual chattels.

inside, i feel black; outside, i’m clearly white

I’d love to be involved in niche projects on the web.  My life experiences – from mental ill-health to living between multiple cultures, and never belonging entirely to one or the other – lead me to sympathise, even (dare I suggest) empathise, with those whose place in society is assigned, defined, marked and limited by both unkind as well as unfamiliar hegemony.

I’d assume, then, if I’m not speaking out of a privilege which blinds me to another set of realities, that if you saw my inside, you’d assume I was a minority.

Yet people who see my polite, deferential, sometimes excessively servile exterior – who are only capable of seeing upper-middle-aged privileged white male – conclude that’s all I am.

The servile comes more out of uncertainty than cowardice, I have to say.

Yesterday, I attended the second part of a three-part interview process.  It’s for the job of proofreader at a newspaper.  The Internet connection didn’t work; Adobe Reader wasn’t installed; an email profile wasn’t set up on my workstation; and, in any case, the paper didn’t appear to have its own intranet.*  So I had to leave my work on the desktop in a folder I created with the shortened version of my name.

There’s a story and a half in that, too.  All my life I’ve been explaining the strangeness of my name.  In the end, ethnocentric abilities weigh down on one: I revert to telling people to call me “Mil”.  And even then, they often get it wrong: they say “Mel” or “Bill” or “Neil”!

It’s very tiring, wearisome to a huge degree, to have to repeat over and over again the prime marker of one’s identity.

Having to shorten it is – in a sense – having to shorten one’s identity.

So you see: on the outside, very white; on the inside, unhappily black.

Anyhow.  I went into the second stage very positively: I love proofreading almost as much as I love writing.  I think, however, my writing is quite second-rate.  Given the right environment, my proofreading is better than my writing by far.

When you proofread, the topics are chosen for you.

When you write, you run the risk of making the mistake of writing about the wrong things.

I’m not sure that yesterday the environment was right.  There were a lot of people talking in a small space; another person doing a test too.  A lot of chatter which a proofreader doesn’t need.  But maybe that’s the curse of open-plan offices.  Maybe that’s the same for any professional who needs peace and quiet.  If you want a job, if you want to work, if you need the money, you just learn to deal with it.

I need the money and want the job.

I want to learn how to work in a newspaper; I want to be able to contribute to making a newspaper better; I want to be surrounded by people who are better than me so I can become better myself …

Is that too much to ask?  Probably not.

But the web is a niche environment.

And I am only black inside.

A clear case of #firstworldproblems?


* A couple of other things surprised me, whilst we’re on the subject: the paper copy of the newspaper doesn’t appear to include the address of its physical location (though there is plenty of information which pushes us to social networks where the address does appear).  Also, a massive disclaimer absolves the paper for all responsibility for opinions, and even facts, which may be published.  I wondered last night if this is actually a legal position to hold.  They must know what they’re doing, surely.  And yet … I still do wonder.

the internet: “watching you, watching me”; me: “breaking up is never easy, i know”

I thought of the title “Watching You, Watching Me”.  Which got me this:

Then I thought of “Watching Me, Watching You”.  And I got this:

I was actually being reminded of Abba’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You” – and this:

The Internet is breaking up, isn’t it?  It, the worldwide web, Web 2.0, Google, Facebook and all the walled gardens out there as well … what we’re witnessing is a break-up.  The Abba song best describes it.  A failing – perhaps already failed – marriage.

A marriage of love which became a marriage of convenience, and which is now a marriage of awful inconvenience.

Governments the world over have wanted to get us all connected to the Internet to make citizen-admin and tracking easier.  Companies the world over have been seduced by the siren calls of big data, virtual connectivity and digital cross-selling – and what all of that can mean for all of their bottom lines.  Security agencies have long spent their time watching us out of the microscopes of their minds through this invention they correctly, from the very beginning, decided to term the web.  “Web” is rarely a positive term in English.  Prior to the Internet, not at all.  And now, once properly perceived, rarely again I’m afraid.

The latter is only now becoming self-evident to the ordinary person.  The latter is only now becoming apparent.

The process is now as the three songs quoted above.

Watching you, watching me; watching me, watching you; ultimately, knowing you as you’ve wholly and unlimitedly got to know me.

The choice is tough.  Really tough.  Let’s try and work it through via a thought experiment.

This selfsame Internet, this web we interface with, all the walled gardens mentioned … they started out as such a playground.  A good place to be.  A place for the good sides of humanity to communicate better.

Bad eggs too, mind.  And the barriers to communication have been so low, and the costs so minimal, there’s a lot the bad eggs can do with all the above.

Thus the fears of governments and their security agencies.

Those agencies we used to call services.

The fears are easy to understand.  But the choice isn’t being explained.

If we were all banned from using altogether the Internet (with all the different interfaces and environments already mentioned) – for shopping, for plane flights, for email, for video-conferencing, for business in general, for entertainment and private stuff in particular – the restrictions on liberty and freedom of expression that even Western governments now proclaim as necessary and unavoidable because of the Internet’s reach would, actually, become entirely unnecessary and avoidable.

Without the Internet for the good things in life, we’d get used I’m sure to other fabulous things in life.  (They do exist you know.  There is other stuff out there we did well before, and will I am sure end up doing well after …)

And, meanwhile, the surveillance currently demanded as a question of life or death would become unnecessary with respect to ourselves – even as it could still remain, for the bad eggs, in place.

That’s the choice.

That’s the choice no one’s mentioning.

If we’re really at those moments before entrenched divorce is inevitable, perhaps our blindness to reality is quite understandable.  Our playground, our place of safety, is simply too dangerous to continue.  And whilst Western governments find it essential to use it as leverage to prevent freedom of expression in civil society, maybe it’s time we decided that such a damaged beast is – indeed – that broken marriage.

Marriage is a long haul.

Living together becomes a normalised habit.

Nothing else seems acceptable out of its frame, after a time.

But when what we must assume are essentially decent, democratic people – both leaders and led, both highly confused as well as the (I imagine) more clear-minded amongst us – find it impossible to avoid deciding that free societies need to be watched even more, need to be known even more, need to be ratcheted down so they fear even more, aren’t we really flogging not just the bloggers, not just the content, not just the books and magazines and newspapers … but, also, the dead horse that – lately – is this Internet?

Ask yourself: if living with another person means you begin to feel oppressed, without intimacy, without the right to just be in any way you might, without being true to yourself … and every day’s a struggle to just get up in the morning; every day a battle to just express yourself … aren’t you being bent out of shape by the very person who once guaranteed your entirety?  Isn’t this just not what you need to live?


Substitute the word “person” with the word “entity”.  Or “web”.  Or the word “Internet” itself.  How does that make you feel?

How is that?