Archive | October 2012

Toying with technology

For those of us who don’t often have cause to go into a children’s toyshop, said establishments can become unexpectedly fascinating sites for anthropological research. On a recent trip to Carlisle, I decided to see what I could find in their Early Learning Centre for my two adorable nieces. Considering I was an “early learner” myself when I last visited, I was understandably amazed at how things have changed since then. The ELC do make a concerted effort to offer a range of toys categorised according to area and skill development – problem solving, gross motor skills, hand-to-eye-coordination, thinking skills, learning to read and so on. I’m not sure about the amount of research that has gone into them, but no doubt these guides are appreciated by regular customers. At the same time, toyshops are just that: shops. Profit, not education, is the ultimate bottom line, and that means keeping up-to-date and “on trend”.

As an adult, you can’t fail to notice the sheer number of toys that continue to promote the usual stereotypical gender roles. Although both girls and boys are pictured playing with kitchen sets and tractors, the meta tags for ELCs online Xmas Shop still refer insistently to “top toys for girls” (pink phantasia, styling heads and prams) and “top toys for boys” (greens, browns, yellows, construction kits and cowboy costumes) in terms carefully avoided elsewhere on the site. The arguments that follow from such assumptions are well known and I won’t repeat them all here. Equally interesting is how a new range of toys reflect the technological changes of our own “adult” environments. Hearteningly, the same little girls who are expected to content themselves with fake washing machines, vacuum cleaners and fairytale castles are at least expected to leave the domestic sphere at some point and undertake the kind of labour that requires a multitude of tech gadgets. 😉 To illustrate:

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A lightweight multi-purpose laptop with a “32 page workbook”. For 3-6 year olds? Wow. Is fun time over? Or are the links between creativity, consumption and productivity what is being encoded here as fun? A scale of consumer gradation means that eventually the toys start subtly to assume actual functionality; whether that be for work or entertainment. Try an image search for “Pink laptop” and you’ll probably struggle to differentiate the fakes from the real things. As Bind Apple noted a few years ago:

Since manufacturers decided they should improve the design and the colors of their existing products, the IT market has been flooded by the massive demand of pink products. Why pink? Because, unlike 10 years ago, technology is not for men only. Also, because the feminine target now represents more than 45% of the total consumers of the whole gadget market.

Of course, it all eventually comes full circle when the adult “gadgets” get marketed as though they were toys. The message seems to be that while children need to mimic their parents, their parents really ought to regress back to the colourful non-results-focused world of play. But isn’t that world becoming just a miniature version of what they’re doing anyway? In future, maybe we’ll have a separate queue for children at airport baggage screening areas. At the ELC, they could buy a multi-coloured, personalised tray to deposit their fake laptops, smartphones and tractor keys into. Just to make sure they really understand the implications of all of this sparkly social technology.

More seriously, there are of course clear links between play, games, learning, creativity and skills development, regardless of age group. Most people would agree that play shouldn’t stop the minute we get added to the electoral register. It’s a question though of what kind of play should be encouraged, and of what gets conditioned into us by the lessons embedded in the socio-cultural tools of the toyshop. Where do the chunky, bright buttons of the laptop and the smartphone fit within paradigms of “investigative” or “collaborative” learning? With the development of critical faculties and personality and “problematic” gender identity? Following the logic of the manufacturers, children will arrive at school already primed to be a certain type of consumer. If I were a parent, I might start to worry about the cost of the inevitable upgrades. That said, can I admit that I did find a lot of the toys pretty nifty?

Internet of Things

“Things” is probably one of the least specific terms you will ever hear in the context of sophisticated cutting-edge computing technologies, which probably makes the concept “Internet of Things” more memorable. Furthermore, it was coined (doubtless during some kind of blue-sky brainstorming session) by a man Wikipedia call “a British technology pioneer”, Birmingham born Kevin Ashton. If you’ve not heard of the Radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology that he helped to standardise and promote, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a part of your everyday environment. In fact, that might just mean it’s on its way to becoming discreetly ubiquitous. If you’ve come across those funny little micro-chipped stickers with the concentric squares when checking your books out of the library – or just used them to accidentally set off security alarms – then you’re using RFID.

As for the Internet of Things, much of which revolves around RFID, it’s pretty “futuristic” and something which I got to learn a lot more about at the PhD Summer School I attended back in August. Yesterday, I submitted a summary of what I learned on the course and (bearing in mind I am no expert) I thought it would be interesting to share with you this section on “The Internet of Things” – not least because it is already on its way and is an excellent demonstration of how technology can both solve and create problems for society in ways that have far-reaching implications.

Source: The Evolution of the Internet of Things, Casaleggio Associati (2011)

Heavily promoted and invested in by the European Union, the Internet of Things (IoT) is defined by Technopedia as:

A computing concept that describes a future where everyday physical objects will be connected to the Internet and will be able to identify themselves to other devices. The term is closely identified with RFID as the method of communication, although it could also include other sensor technologies, other wireless technologies, QR codes, etc.

To give some examples of use, there are clearly benefits in terms of commercial supply chains and logistics; stock from a warehouse or the fuel consumption of delivery drivers en route can be more effectively tracked and monitored using RFID chips and broadcast networks. In the home, a consumer might be alerted by their fridge, via their mobile phone, that they need to remember bacon. Every object, addressable via internet protocols, would have a unique identity and an active online profile, developing what seems to some people a “personality”. It might be perfectly possible for your guitar to find other musicians in your area with the same taste in music as you or the shop that sells its type of strings. On the streets of a city, the lighting might automatically dim to save resources when sensors detect that there is nobody nearby requiring illumination or, in a combination of art, engineering and science, change colour depending on the measured physiological responses or the stated (online) preferences of a pedestrian.

For this, a complex architecture is required to support a global network of programmable and addressable “smart” devices (both physical and virtual) capable of being part of the IoT. These devices would be context aware, with embedded sensors, processors, tracking, monitoring, and (possibly) visualisation capabilities; they would capture and store commercial and/or personal data and respond in ways both pre-programmed and calculated in ways apparently intuitive to serve a user’s need or supposed need. This might involve “thing” to person (t2p), machine-to-machine (m2m) or “thing” to machine (t2m) communication paths. Such interactions extend the kinds of data exchange already taking place between objects, systems and intelligent devices like “smartphones”, the hardware and operating systems of which having in many ways suggested or laid the frame for the development of the IoT. Much of what is needed for it has already been or is currently being developed in R&D or manufacturing sites around the world.

Julie Christie’s home was full of intelligent devices in Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed…

Of course there are a plethora of potential economic and social benefits associated with the implementation of the IoT, particularly in the area of health care or for improved energy efficiency and waste management. But it’s vital also to have debates here about technological determinism and the tendency by technologists to narrativise – in a linear “step-wise” fashion – supposed “inevitable” progressions of innovation and societal advance. The move from fragmented network technologies to cloud computing certainly appears compellingly logical; but we must not forget that ultimately, we decide the ends to which technologies are put and the values placed upon them. Having the rather “Science Fiction” style IoT vision become reality is not unproblematic. Issues include privacy, security, a lack of demonstrable benefit beyond industrial efficiency, and possibly low consumer acceptance in civil society. RFID chips are thought by some to be “spychips”, the processes and implications of which will be mysterious to most consumers who will not know exactly what data is being gathered about them or who it is being accessed by.

More prosaically, there are technical and functional issues that need addressed such as “data flooding” – when much of the data gathered and subsequently read from an RFID tag is not useful or meaningful to the organisation or individual accessing it. Further, there are the usual problems of a lack of standardisation of formats, frequencies and communication protocols to allow the interoperability required for a global Internet of Things. Connecting smart devices, software and systems in the cloud will of course require new and flexible business models and the identification/creation and capture of new business opportunities and markets within sustainable economic sectors. Whatever your perspective, new skills, new attitudes, and a fundamentally different philosophy will be required of us if the IoT is to be safe, successful, and opt-outable of.

Invisibly Visibile

If it wasn’t for a friend who lives nowhere near me, I would never have known about a little art exhibition currently running at the Everyman Gallery here on Beech Road, Chorlton. In fact, it’s directly opposite my living room! Funny how you can continually walk past something interesting right on your own doorstep; as if proximity conceals, or makes less remarkable. In the Gallery, up-and-coming poet painter Harry Matthews was showing 9 or 10 oil paintings on canvasses full of light and explorations of colour – appropriately enough titled “The Art of the Invisible”, in a nod to Johnathan Swift.1 While we made the most of the complimentary wine, he also treated us to an impromptu reading of some of his poetry.

Matthews’ paintings deal with traditional Romantic themes of nature, transcendence, the hidden, and the sublime, some in beautiful shades of spring green and yellow, others in watery blues or lilacs. Bold impressionistic brushstrokes and thick layers combine here and there with childish animal or human figures cheekily sketched and concealed almost like little palimpsests among foliage or hills or waterfalls. A Christian God is also very much present, more obvious in some places than in others. For me, there was something reminiscent of John William Waterhouse in a few of the works and of course, the spirit of J.M.W. Turner.

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Roses, water, visions, the ethereal. Matthews plays with styles and forms and with the relationships between the abstract and the more specific lines of subjective experience or interpretation. A boy? A girl? A wolf or a fox? A lake full of reflections or a hilly landscape? As the artist, who was sitting casually to one side (with only a faint whiff of opening night nervousness) told us more than once: “Everyone has been seeing something different. We see what we want to see”. In the gorgeous smoky clouds of Earth Dragon, Matthews, quoting Rainer Maria Rilke, suggests that “Only he who can expect anything, who does not exclude even the mysterious, will have a relationship with life greater than just being alive…Perhaps everything fearful is just helplessness that seeks our help“.2

1If anyone knows the source for the quote about vision please let me know!
2An alternative translation, by Stephen Mitchell.
But only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.