Archive for September, 2013

age of context

It’s hard not to get caught up in the breathless excitement of Robert Scoble and Shel Israel as they lift the veil on The Next Big Thing that’ll be transforming our lives.

As enthusiastic future-gazers their highly readable book steers us into a world where millions of sensors and interconnected devices work together to anticipate our every need.

It’s a world where a collision of five major forces combine in a technological big bang: mobile, social, big data, sensors and location.

All of them have been with us for a while and, in many cases, have overlapped and been transformative. The authors believe we’re now on a path to a much deeper convergence and one that will fuel an explosion of change in every aspect of life.

Self-driving cars, 3D city modeling, smart textiles, bionic suits, toothbrushes that detect tooth decay – the book is bursting at the seams with examples of where things are headed.

As technology optimists they paint a rosy picture, but they also acknowledge there are major obstacles to overcome.

To get the best from this data-rich world individuals are going to have to surrender a great deal more of their personal privacy – and that’s a problem. Ultimately, they posit, the benefits will outweigh the costs and people will come round.

But even if they do, big issues hang in the air: Who will own the data? Will it be possible to opt-out of collection? How else might the information be used? And by whom?

Like all transforming technology, potential abuses can be as profound as the benefits they bring. The prize in enhancements to many aspects of our lives is huge, but the surrender of personal privacy will give many people cause for concern.

The future may be bright, but it’s also scary, and Scoble and Israel do a good job in framing the boundaries around issues we’re going to have to face up to.

Age of Context

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A better way to live, by design

Posted: September 16, 2013 in Book review
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Jacobs-The-Death-and-Life-of-Great-American-Cities

How do you create community? What makes a place good to live? How can urban planners influence the way people behave?

Jane Jacobs attempted to answer those questions more than half a century ago and the conclusions she came to still resonate today. Sadly, the lessons on what makes a neighborhood attractive haven’t yet sunk in: It takes more than wealth and window boxes, mansions and manicured gardens.

When public places fail to work, people retreat into private spaces. It’s why we see the rich move into gated communities, where life is safe but sterile. It’s why so much of suburban sprawl is drab and lifeless. And it’s why teeming cities can be isolating and lonely.

Jacobs the social anthropologist documents in great detail the small and often casual interactions between people that become the essential building blocks of community.

Favors and kindnesses take many forms: It might be the deli owner who keeps spare key for a customer, or the grocer who takes parcel deliveries for people who are out at work. These “transactions” – exchanges of trust – are just one aspect.

Equally important are the neutral spaces where small talk and casual encounters can occur regardless of socio-economic standing. These, she notes, rarely happen at the formally-designated, urban-planned, appointed meeting places.

Street life has changed a great deal since she wrote the book and her safety in numbers argument holds less sway now than it did then. We’re more likely to pass by than to intervene (though we might film it on our smartphones) but the essential truths remain.

We are drawn to other people. Small shops, diverse businesses and places where people mix freely to interact are essential to the social fabric of life and in ways that malls and footfall will never be.

shipping news

You can almost sniff the brine in this richly-described journey of a broken man who finds his bearings in the margins of a tough Newfoundland village.

Proulx’s prose takes you right there, a bleak place peopled by rough characters who eke out a meagre existence in a world of harsh storms and deep superstitions.

The story is beautifully crafted and many layered. It shows warmth and humor in a community that never has it easy. But it also delves into the darker side of a place where child sex abuse, inbreeding and savagery are never far away.

The vivid imagery is a constant source of pleasure and it never flags. This introduction of a weather-beaten, seadog is a great example of the kind of thing you’ll find: “Diddy Shovel’s skin was like asphalt, fissured and cracked, thickened by a lifetime of weather, the scurf of age…” I raced through it at a rapid rate of knots and all too soon it came to an end.