Becoming Digital

It is received wisdom that the world has become digital.

Leaving aside that I now qualify for concessions at some venues, is this true? Is it really an age thing, and only the young will truly ‘be’ digital? Why do we still in many homes live in some mix of analogue and digital existence? Have we really become digital or are we only part way through a long transition? What, if anything, is holding us back? (I will leave for another essay the issue of what is happening in the workplace or enterprise: in this essay I am only concerned what impinges on home life).

It is certainly the case that Nicholas Negroponte’s vision of the future “Being Digital” published in 1995, when he was Director of the MIT Media Lab (and where he remains as Chairman, no doubt, with colleagues predicting new futures), provided an excellent checklist for inventions and innovations in the digital arena, and what he characterized as the transition from atoms (eg. Books) to bits (eg. e-books), as the irreducible medium for the transmission of information and entertainment. [In the following I will insert the occasional quote from the book.]

Smart TVs

When walking through Heathrow Airport recently I saw a toddler in arms, and as they passed a display screen a little hand reached out pointing at the screen, and tried to swipe it! It amazed me.

“… personal computers almost never have your finger meet the display, which is quite startling when you consider that the human finger is a pointing device you do not have to pick up, and we have ten of them.” (p. 132)

Clearly the touch-screen generation is emerging (although the child was disappointed to discover it failed to respond … it was just a TV monitor!). [The quotation above is similar to the Steve Jobs one, included in Walter Isaacson’s biography of him, (p. 309) “God gave us ten styluses”, which he uttered in relation to the stylus bearing Apple Newton, on his return to the firm in 1997. But of course Jobs had been dreaming of touch-screen products for many years, and it is incredible that the first iPad was released only 5 years ago, and the iPhone just three years earlier than that].

Negroponte predicted the convergence of the PC and the TV, but why has it taken me until the closing days of 2014 to acquire a “Smart TV”? It is a complex matter.

One thing is that I like to get the full value from the stuff I buy and the 7 years old Sony workstation and Bravia monitor (with its inbuilt tuner) meant we could view TV terrestrial and internet catch-up services like BBC iPlayer from the same set of kit, while also using it as a media station for photos and music, with some nice Bose speakers attached. But this is a setup that comes at a price, in ways that are more than simply financial.

The cost of setting up a fully fledged PC (which is mostly intended for entertainment) is high, whereas the Smart TV encapsulates the required processing power for you at a fraction of the cost. Why do we need a geek to watch a film? No reason at all. It really should be plug and view. And this also avoids all those irritating invitations to upgrade this or that software; to rerun virus checks; and battle with bloat-ware like Internet Explorer; etc.).  Not to mention that when we picked it up I could literally lift the Smart TV box with my little finger. This is therefore not only about the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) but also the TIO (Total Irritation of Ownership). [The old Sony PC setup lives on in my new Study, where I will now use its power to greater effect, spending more time curating my vast photo collection, and writing blogs like this]

Sometimes the market is not quite ready for an idea, and it takes time to educate people about the options. The convergence of so many elements, including internet services, Full HD, large LED screens, and much more, when coupled with people’s poor experiences of high TCO and TIO mean that they like me are ready to make the move when thinking about a new “TV”. In my case triggered by the thought of moving the media station to my new office, and thinking “Do I REALLY want another PC to drive a TV monitor?”.

eBooks

On a recent long trip, my wife and I succumbed to getting a Kindle, allowing us to take a small library of novels with us for the journey and avoid falling foul of weight limitations on our flights. The Kindle is great technology because it does neither more nor less than one needs, which is a high contrast means of reading text, optimized for easy-on-the-eye reading as close as possible to what we know and love in a physical book. Power consumption is low, so battery life is long, because it does not try to do too much.

Does this stop us buying books? Well no. Even novels are still acquired in physical form sometimes because I suppose we are of an age where we still like the feel of a book in our hands.

But there are other reasons, that mean that even were we to wean ourselves off the physical novel, with it’s exclusively textual content, other books would not be so easily rendered in compelling electronic form due to their richer content.

Quite often the digital forms of richer media books are poorly produced, being often merely flat PDF renditions of the original. One of the books we downloaded for our trip was a Rough Guide to Australia and frankly it was a poor experience on a Kindle and no substitute for the physical product.

It recalls for me the inertia and lack of imagination of music companies who failed to see the potential in digital forms, seeing only threats not possibilities, which then saw them overhauled by file-sharing and ultimately ‘products’ such as iTunes and Spotify. In a sense, the problems and possibilities are worse for books because at least with books, it should not have taken much imagination to see where publishers could have provided different forms of ‘added value’, and so transform their role in a new digital landscape.

For example, when a real effort is made to truly exploit the possibilities of the digital medium – its interactivity, visual effects, hyperlinking, etc. – then a compelling product is possible that goes far beyond mere text and static visuals. Richard Dawkin’s “The Magic of Reality” for the iPad is an electronic marvel (a book made App), including the artistry of Dave McKean.

It brings the content to life, with wonderful text, touch-screen navigation, graphics and interactive elements. It clearly required a major investment in terms of the art and graphical work to render the great biologists ideas and vision into this new form. It could never have been achieved on a Kindle. It was able to shine on an iPad.

This is the next kind of digital book that really does exploit the possibilities of the medium, and should be the future of electronic books, if more publishers had the imagination to exploit the platform in this way.

The concept of personalization is also a great idea that only the digital world can bring to reality. This has already happening in news to a greater or lesser extent, as Negroponte predicted:

“There is another way to look at a newspaper, and that is as an interface to news. Instead of reading what other people thinks is news and what other people justify as worthy of the space it takes, being digital will change the economic model of news selections, make your interests play a bigger role, and, in fact, use pieces from the cutting-room floor that did not make the cut from popular demand.” (p. 153)

However, the physical forms live on, or takes a long time to die.

I used to buy The Independent, but now, for reasons partly concerned with content but also the user experience, I have moved to The Guardian tablet product: but we still get a physical ‘paper’ on Sunday, because it is somehow part of the whole sprawling business of boiled eggs, toast and coffee: an indulgence like superior marmalade.

Some physical forms will remain for more persistent reasons.

When we recently went to an exhibition of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photography in Paris, we came away the coffee table sized book of the exhibition measuring 30cm x 25cm x 5cm. This book is an event in itself, to be handled and experienced at the coffee table, not peered at through some cold screen.

And what of my old copy of P.A.M Dirac’s “The Principles of Quantum Mechanics” in it’s wonderfully produced Oxford Monograph form, where even the paper has a unique oily smell? I received this for my 21st birthday from my mother in 1974, and it is inscribed by her. For me, it is irreplaceable, in whatever form you might offer to me.

We will never completely sideline physical / analogue products, but for books at least we may see them being pushed towards two extremes. On the one hand, the pulp fiction Print-On-Demand low cost product, or on the other hand, the high impact, high cost product like the coffee table art book.

Our senses of sight, smell, taste, touch & hearing are analogue and so we have a innate bias towards analogue. That is why the iPad is so much more natural for a child learning to interact with technology than a traditional PC.

The producers of digital products must work hard to really overcome the hurdles that digital production often faces to match the intimacy and warmth of the physical, analogue forms. But when they do, they can create stunning results.

We are for sure ‘Becoming Digital’, but the journey is far from over and there is still much to learn to make the transition complete, whatever that might mean.

eAlbums

I remember 10 years ago making the shift to digital photography. The trigger this time was a big birthday/ holiday for my wife, and the thought of upgrading my camera, from Canon SLR to Canon SLR, but now a metal bodied just-about-affordable digital one. I had flirted with digital but it had been very expensive to get even close to the quality of analogue (film). But in 2005 I found that the technology had crossed that threshold of affordable quality.

In making the transition to digital I had long ago lost the time or appetite for the darkroom, and the Gamer enlarger has been in the loft now for more than 20 years. But even without substituting the chemicals with Photoshop, there is a lot to think about in the move to digital:

How will one organize and index one’s photos?

And, the big question for me, how will one avoid simply substituting the large box of photos and negatives that never quite found time to be curated and nurtured into Albums, with a ‘digital’ box, with JPEG and RAW files that never quite get around to being curated and nurtured into Albums?

When my wife and I returned from the holiday of a life-time in Tanzania, and I had some 3000 shots (high resolution JPEGs), including a sequence of a Leopard on the bough of a tree which I waited an hour to take: the few fleeting moments as it rose from its slumbers, stretched and then disappeared into the grasses of the Serengeti.

How could I turn this huge collection into a Christmas present for my wife worthy of the experience?

  • Well, I first decided on how to thematically organize the album … Our Journey, Enter the Big 5, The Cats, …
  • Then I sifted and selected the photos I would include in the album, before printing these 150 photos that survived the cull in different sizes and aspect ratios.
  • These were then pasted into the album, leaving plenty of space for narrative, commentary, and the odd witty aside.
  • This whole process took 3 whole days. A work of love and a little art I like to think.

Could that really be done purely digitally?

Now I know and can concede that much of this analogue work could now be done using some on-line ‘create your album’ service (of which there are many), even perhaps creating a look and feel that tries to emulate the warmth and intimacy of the old fashioned album.

There is a ‘but’,  because even if we have digitized the process to that extent, people still want the physical album as the end product sent to their home.

Why?

Surely we could have a digital display cycling through the album and avoiding the need for a physical artefact entirely? Why do we, in Negroponte’s language, need atoms when we can have bits instead?

Part of this is cultural. Handing around an album at Christmas rather than clicking a display on the device on the wall is still something that commands greater intimacy. But even supposing we clear that cultural and emotional hurdle there remains another more fundamental one.

Will this iconic album be around in 50 or 100 years time, like the albums we see from our grandparents, cared for as a family heirloom? Now, while many people now – knowingly or otherwise – are storing their digital photos on the cloud, and this number is growing exponentially, how many would trust cloud services to act as custodians of the family’s (digital) heirlooms?

I would suggest that few would today. So, what needs to happen next to take us from ‘Becoming Digital’ to fully digital, at least when it comes to our family photos and videos?

Google or Facebook are not the answer as they do not understand the fundamental need, that there may actually be stuff I do not want shared by default with every person I come into contact with – and I am obliged to understand increasingly complex and poorly thought-out access controls to ensure confidentiality – and if I slip up, it is my fault.

I am prepared to pay for professional services that respect my need to ensure confidentiality and copyright by default, and sharing is controlled precisely only when and with whom I want to, through choices simply and clearly made.

Clearly the Googles and Facebooks of this world do not offer a philosophy or business model to provide such a platform, because we have entered into a pact with these social media giants: we get to use their platforms for free if and only if we are prepared to share intimate detail of our lives, so we can be monetized, through a network of associated Apps and services that make recommendations to us. They are marketing engines offering to be our friend!

That is the choice we are forced to make if we want to stay in touch with our distant family networks.

So what is the alternative?

Well, we need a whole lot of stuff that goes beyond devices and platforms, and is nothing like social media. Imagine that the National Archives in a country like the UK joined forces with a respected audit firm (like PwC) and legal firm (like Linklaters) to institute a kind of ‘digital repository accreditation and archiving service’ that acted in support of commercial providers, and was funded by its own statutory services.

The goal would be to set legally enshrined standards for the accreditation, auditing and care of digital artefacts in all forms, in perpetuity, acting as the trusted archive of last resort. Added value services could be developed including rich descriptive meta-data, collection management, etc., to enable commercial providers to create a market that goes far beyond mere storage, but was not dependent on the long-term viability of any commercial entity.

This combined enterprise would provide that extra level of confidence customers fundamentally need.

Now that would be interesting!

As this example illustrates, the process of ‘Becoming Digital’ is so much more than the latest device, or App, or other gizmo, or even content production process (as we saw with eBooks).

It requires something that satisfies those less easy to define emotional, cultural and legal requirements, that would make it truly possible for my grandchildren to enjoy visual and textual heirlooms in a purely digital form that are secure and confidential, in perpetuity.

Conclusion

“Being Digital” was a seminal and visionary book and it is no wonder that the incomparable Douglas Adams in his review comments included on the cover said:

“… Nicholas Negroponte writes about the future with the authority of someone who has spent a great deal of time there.”

Now we are nearing 20 years into that future, it is interesting to see how things are playing out and how much of his vision has come to pass, and how much more there is to do.

What is most evident to me, from a personal perspective at least, is that ‘Becoming Digital’ in all its forms is a rocky and personal path, with lots of hurdles and distractions on the way, and an awkward marriage between analogue and digital, between atoms and bits, that looks set to continue for a long while yet … at least in this household.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2014.

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The Quantum of doubt, and Uncertainty of Journalism

ATTP wrote a great piece on policing science that prompted this blog post. I am shocked that Matt Ridley, as someone with a good science degree, is stooping so low as to ‘diss’ so many scientists, including the President of the Royal Society.

I have just seen the excellent first episode in Professor Al Khalili’s TV series on BBC4 on The Secrets of Quantum Physics which combined an historical perspective with some practical hands on science. Great stuff.

It covers the battle between Bohr and Einstein on the interpretation of quantum physics, and how much later Bell’s insight and subsequent experiments by others helped to show that Bohr was right after all.

Did the scientific community denigrate Bohr or Einstein over the many years that the controversy raged? No, they took sides for sure, but this was a scientific debate, not a personal attack. Was there a ‘Matt Ridley’ or ‘Melanie Phillips’ from the press judging this debate? No, because they hadn’t a clue how to judge it. Quantum theory is trivial in comparison to climate science, so how come they feel skilled enough to judge it’s veracity?

Yet, greats like Bohr and Einstein respected each other even as they deeply disagreed, like two top sparring partners, but ultimately, they respected the process of science above their mutual respect: science was the winner.

I respect the huge number of scientists grappling with something far more complex than quantum theory: the fate of our climate. They do so with great dignity and perseverance, amongst the noise and denigration of a few such as the aforementioned: The decades studying ice cores; The decades developing models that are brilliant (“all models are wrong but some are useful” is true, but a better term might be … “all models are created with great diligence using the appropriate best science, best computers, and best empirical evidence … and by goodness, they are very useful indeed”, and we do not have a Planet B to do a blind trial controlled experiment!); the list is long.

Science is about making mistakes. Challenging. Testing. Theorizing. Testing again. In true Popperian style: the goal is to make the mistakes as quickly as possible! But the diverse and argumentative community of scientists are the best at acting as judges and jury – this is how it has worked to date – because they have the skills and processes to do this. If there is a brilliant new discovery to be had to confound the status quo, why would someone keep quiet about it!?

And even when the knowledge did not exist to understand something like the ‘ultraviolet catastrophe’, it was scientists (first Planck in 1900 identifying quanta as a requirement for understanding the black body spectrum, then Einstein in explaining the photoelectric effect in 1905 and finally convincing everyone that light quanta were real) that resolved the problem.

Were they shunned as heretics who did not abide by the mainstream? Actually, after a little debate, the cream comes to the surface in science. Always has. Always will.

In climate science, we are not expecting or needing new physics. The problem is complex, but we know that we can derive broad and reasonable conclusions from complex and difficult data. That is true in climate science and true in big data. But not in Journalism.

The Wall Street Journal and Daily Mail give over acres of newsprint and webspace to the likes of Matt Ridley, Dominic Lawson and Melanie Philips to spout their ill-informed vitriol against science and scientists. These never genuinely challenge the science but aim to attack the person or organization. They ascribe motives not competing science. They have none.

Of course science weeds out bad apples, like the now struck off Andrew Wakefield. He is also a case study in the diabolical abuse of power of some in the press, like the Daily Mail, during the MMR debacle and now over global warming.

Not even a thousand years of study and re-evaluation will somehow elevate poor Dr Wakefield from poor misunderstood researcher to misunderstood genius, as his supporters would have us believe.

The Daily Mail does not appreciate that for every genuine genius, there are a legion of cranks. In journalism too often, diatribe and horrible brown stuff rises to the surface, not cream. The tendency to champion cranks over genuine science is both bizarre and a huge disservice to the readers of these organs.

Does Joe Public trust the future of science more in the hands of the institutions of science such as the Royal Society and National Academy of Science, or the habitually contrarian agents of scientific illiteracy such as the Daily Mail and Wall Street Journal?

I think we know that the wisdom of the masses would not fail us.

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Art and Science

As I think Richard Feynman once said … understanding how a rainbow works does not diminish its beauty but enhances it. But how do we bring together art & science for something as complex as memory?

The Ustinov Theatre has recently staged three exceptional ‘black comedies’  .

These three black comedies, translated from European playwrights, explore deep aspects of our lives in compelling ways.

The second of these was Florian Zeller’s new play The Father.  In innovative ways it gave the audience a visceral sense of the increasing fragmentation of memory as dementia takes hold, as only theatre can achieve.

Whereas a few years back Memory: an anthology, Edited by Harriet Harvey Wood & AS Byatt explored memory from intellectual perspectives including literary, scientific and cultural.

There is a quote from the great Spanish film director Luis Buñuel …

“You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all… Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it we are nothing.”

The current scientific view of memory is that it is not some kind of library of images with an index, but a process whereby a memory is reconstructed in real time each time we recover it, and this makes it easy for us to conflate similar experiences by inserting or erasing fragments.  I disagree all the time with my wife about who was at that meal, in that town, who was present, etc.

I suppose this is why we retell important stories as families and tribes to reinforce our bonds and preserve these memories.

Perhaps because of the limitations in our scientific understanding of memory, it is easier to have this interplay between artistic, scientific and cultural perspectives.

But even when the science is mature, there is no reason why we cannot find ways to use art to enrich our understanding and enjoyment of the natural world: music, science fiction and paintings inspired by the solar system, for example.

I would go further.

Given the difficulty of society accessing science, with its special languages for each sub-discipline, the person in the street needs help.

People are actually curious about science and recognise its importance, so the role of the arts can be and perhaps should be elevated to improve accessibility.

As examples of this kind of collaboration:

  • Ben River’s film Slow Action – supported by Animate Projects and Bristol City – for the Wellcome Trust.
  • Hettie Griffiths’ animation in collaboration with Imperial College

Initiatives like the Wellcome Trust’s Art Award are so  important at bringing together artists and scientists.

I would be interested in other examples that others would like to share.

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The Spurious ‘Debate’ On Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW)

A lot has been made of often toxic ‘debates’ that often accompany news items and blogs on the web. You do not have to look far. Take many news items on the BBC and you will often find that a journalist’s blog is leapt upon by all manner of often uncivil, anonymous and barely moderated posts that degenerate into all manner of speculations on the motives of him or her, and conspiracies about this or that.

This is no more so than when the topic involves science, and in particular, climate science. The vitriol of many posts means that people with a genuine understanding of the science are too weary to engage in these discussion threads. When they do, and try to build a bridge with so-called sceptics, they will find that their motives are questioned. The problem is that comment threads on the web seem to be about as far from the norms of ‘debate’ as it is possible to get.

For a debate, the protagonists must start from at least some areas of common ground, and then debate their differences using a common language, where the words from each side are understood within common norms and frameworks. Yes, it can get heated but debate can remain ‘on subject’ and not resort to personal attacks.

At the Hay book festival a few years ago two prominent historians, Eric Hobsbawm and Niall Ferguson, debated the origins of the First World War. Despite their serious political differences, a civilized debate ensued, and they actually ended up agreeing.

Now imagine if a senior scientist at the National Ignition Facility in Livermore wanted to challenge a motion “There is no prospect of commercialized fusion power making a significant contribution to mitigating the current pathway towards dangerous anthropogenic global warming (AGW) ”, he would start with several agreed points, such as the reality of AGW and the dangerous pathway part too, probably. But imagine that this was a blog ‘debate’ and then: firstly, someone jumped in who said that cold fusion already worked and there was a conspiracy to hide this truth from the world; secondly, a guy pops up with an argument saying that AGW is a lie, because it defies common sense that 400 parts per million of CO^2 have so much effect, and he has references to prove it!; etcetera.

There are a number of factors at work here that will prevent genuine debate:

  • To have a debate, there must be common norms, language and frameworks that enable constructive focused debate e.g. in the AGW ‘debate’ a basic understanding of the kinetic theory of heat; the laws of thermodynamics; the absorption spectra of molecules; etc., before one can ‘debate’ the way in which models use this basic physics. I can imagine Professor Betts of the Met Office having a debate with James Lovelock of Gaia fame on a motion “The lack of modelling of sub-surface ocean circulation undermines the ability of general circulation models of the climate to make useful predictions of future warming”. A fair challenge at first sight, but I bet Professor Betts has plenty of arguments to have a sensible debate with Lovelock. Lovelock would not jump in with “but CO^2 is not a greenhouse gas”, because that is not true.
  • The casual use of crooked forms of argument that have been studied for as long as debate has been with us (for a survey, see the sadly out of print book by Thouless: http://neglectedbooks.com/Straight_and_Crooked_Thinking.pdf ), which pepper many political arguments but are now used routinely in these ‘debates’.
  • What philosophers call ‘category errors’ abound: these discussion threads often conflate so many apparently random points that debate is well nigh impossible. Given that, as my mother used to say “empty vessels make the most noise”, is it any wonder that the substance of any debate gets lost in the noise of ignorance and vitriol?

One feels bound to ask “Who is a debate for?”. For students campaigning against investment in Fossil Fuels there is little interest in ‘debates’ as to the truth of AGW, as they are convinced that there is a serious AGW issue and have moved on from debate to action.

Lord Lawson, on the other hand, probably spends little time going through discussion threads. His language and framework is not a science-based one, but is based on a liberal view of economics: human progress and the market will save the day, so the details of the science are really not something he is equipped to debate or is fundamentally interested in. He probably regards AGW proponents as at best unwitting tools of anti-free market forces which must be defeated at all costs.

For those ‘sceptics’ who are genuinely interested in challenging the science, rather than the motives of scientists, there needs to be a forum for genuine debate, and we must stop pretending that the un-moderated threads that largely populate blogs that challenge AGW can provide this platform.

You may well ask, are not the people who are genuinely interested in challenging the science, the scientists themselves! After all, they do this day in and day out using credible scientific venues, such as refereed journals, conferences and so forth. That is indeed true. They have the training, skills and experience to enable them to challenge the science effectively, and to reach solid conclusions. By that process, a consensus has emerged that the Earth is warming, and that it is largely or entirely due to human activity.

‘Sceptics’ who are genuinely interested in challenging that consensus will have to participate in the same scientific process. This requires a minimum level of knowledge and skill – putting in the time and effort required – before they can “challenge the science”. If they’re not willing to do that, they can hardly be considered genuine sceptics. Scientists are quintessentially sceptical. They are the uber ‘sceptics’!

But what about those who are ill equipped to challenge the science, but perhaps find themselves challenged or befuddled by the science!? In this broader realm concerned with communicating what is established science, to those who have an interest in the science but lack the knowledge and skills – including some journalists, politicians, University of the 3rd Agers, etc. – there is a need for credible scientists to engage. This is more likely to be achieved using old fashioned forms of discourse – village halls, or video talks, that are as close as possible to face-to-face discourse – and far removed from the un-moderated, of anonymous ‘debates’ on the web. This is not debate, it is an open form of communication.

The debate comes, of course, for all of us when we come to consider the options we face when confronted by science. Do we continue with nuclear or push to scale renewables? Valid topics for political debate. There is no reason, and actually some advantage, for this discourse to be done in concert with those sceptics who are able to engage in genuine debate about those things worth debating, with those who share sufficient norms, language and frameworks needed to facilitate genuine debate.

I would welcome a debate with Lord Lawson, but that is impossible while he remains in denial about the science. So, just as Ferguson and the now departed Hobsbawm, were able, on an historical topic, to engage in useful debate that lead to a conclusion  despite a huge chasm between them (politically), so too, even on a complex and challenging topic like AGW, discourse is possible – given a suitable topic for debate.

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