Friday, 3 August 2012

Letting go of control and turning the world right-side up

Three wonderful things I've heard or read over the past 24 hours. First, Giles Fraser on prayer, writing in The Guardian:
Too much prayer is seen as effort, as an attempt to make things different by some mental act of will. But the world does not revolve around you or me. And I can't make it or other people dance to my tune by strenuously wishing things were other than they are. There is no magic involved. It's not about mysteriously offering up some shopping list of proposals to an absent-minded deity who might not have thought about them had you not suggested them first. It's not cosmic lobbying. The fundamental move is to give up trying to be in control.
Next David, an member of the Old Order Amish, speaking on the BBC2 programme Amish: A Secret Life:
There is no way of life that will bring peace and joy into a person's heart. Some people think that if they would only live a unique lifestyle like the Amish, that would help them be happy; some people think if they would have a bigger house, they would be happy. But my message is, all those things are good but if that's what your happiness is based on, it's not going to last. If you accept Jesus, that will be the true happniess. 
And lastly Eric Kuiper in a sermon entitled Riots, Superheros and a World Upside Down at Mars Hill Bible Church:
More than any other, Acts 17:1-10 encapsulates in one compressed piece of text the theological thought that expresses the tension inherent to Acts: the Christian mission is, in Luke's way of reading reality, a witness to a world that is upside down. To follow Jesus is to see that the world is upside down and to join him in flipping it right side up.
The link between these three passages by three passionate Christian men from very different traditions? Control, the importance of letting go of what we think are the rules or the right thing to do, and letting God lead us in what God thinks are the right things to do. But being prepared to realise that in the process we are participating in building the upside-down kingdom: and maybe even that the process of letting go of our control is itself part of that upside-down kingdom.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Radical Christianity as a basis for social change

Marx is back! Or so says Christian Fuchs at Uppsala University, editor of the journal TripleC for which I'm currently co-guest-editing a special issue. And certainly some academics are beginning to return to Marx, now that communism has had its decent burial and we can begin to disentangle the master from his authoritarian pupils - given the failure of robber capitalism in the recent banking collapse, it makes a lot of sense to read him. One of the most passionate talks at the recent American Society for Cybernetics / Bateson Ideas Group conference I attended in California, given by Ely Dorsey, drew heavily on Marx as well as on second-order cybernetics (and a healthy amount of moral outrage).

However, Marx doesn't do it for me that much, and I think some people's attraction to him is essentially ideological, deriving from their worldview and basic assumptions rather than scientific evidence or hard-argued theory. So if social theory can be based on that basis, I've been wondering whether a radical social theory couldn't just as legitimately be based on Christian teaching.

There are many Christianities, and many gospels, but I prefer (as others have written) to concentrate on the teachings of Jesus than the teachings about Jesus. This Jesus was a radical figure, a fiery teacher from nowhere in particular, who said that God had "anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor; he has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free" (Luke 4:18). He hung out with society's marginalised - outcasts, women, tax collectors - and he was executed for challenging the religious and political authorities. He preached a world turned upside down; told his followers that the poor, meek and the peacemakers were those were truly blessed (Matthew 5:3-10); and said that at the day of judgement, God would favour those who fed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the sick and prisoners, and curse those who did not (Matthew 25:31-46). 

Moreover, Jesus came from a long tradition of radical prophets within the Jewish tradition. His own mother, on hearing of his birth, praised the God who "has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble, [who] has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty" (Luke 1:52-53) - which as I've remarked elsewhere is not an entirely comfortable passage for those of us who live privileged lives in rich countries. As Gustavo Gutierrez wrote about this passage, "[its] thanksgiving and joy are closely linked to the action of God who liberates the oppressed and humbles the powerful ... the future of history belongs to the poor and exploited" (A Theology of Liberation, 1973, p.120).

Many other parts of the Old Testament express similar views, from the experience of Job in empathy with the oppressed from his own experience, to the call that God requires of us is "to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). This is a theory of the world turned upside down, of a preference for the poor, the humble and the oppressed; it is a theory that would condemn as iniquitous all structures and attitudes that divide people and favour the powerful, that is against homophobia, sexism and racism as much as it is for economic opportunities for all people through the world to thrive.
So if Marx can be the basis for a theory of social change, could not this radical Christianity likewise be the basis of social change? At this time when our economy is in a mess and our society fragmented and depressed, it might be just the hope we need. It certainly can't hurt to try.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Busyness again

I've written on this blog in the past about busyness and the importance of not being too busy to sit and just be (and listen to God, as I wrote previously, but this could be put differently). Well, no secrets here - I'm rubbish at this. I lurch from one activity to another (work, time with family, voluntary activities, housework, church...) and have become quite bad at stopping to smell the flowers, as it were. Indeed, I've fallen into a worse trap: quite frequently now when someone asks how I am, my default response is to say "oh, busy".

It's not an especially health frame of mind. I'm very influenced by my Presbyterian upbringing (as I increasingly realise) and so-called Protestant work ethic (plenty of other religious cultures have it too), so I do value hard work and I do like to see concrete outcomes from what I do. But being constantly busy, or at least feeling that way, does no-one any good.

These reflections are not just indeed to be confessional, but were inspired by an interesting article, "The Busy Trap", by Tim Kreider in the New York Times (which was linked to by John Naughton). Kreider writes:
Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. ... Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.
So I'm going to spend the evening reading my novel. Once I've finished the washing up...

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Technology and materiality: books as a socio-technical system

Source: Demotivation

I love this image, which is going around the net at the moment. It's clearly been produced by those who value books as a medium. It speaks (to me) of the way that books can expand horizons and minds; but also of the simplicity of the technology of a book compared to an e-reader or PC screen. I think (from the caption and the way it's been discussed online) that we're supposed to draw the conclusion that paper books are simple and e-books are complex, but that books expand the mind hugely.

Well, yes and no. Books are a huge part of my life, and always have been since I was a small child. But they're not a simple object. Here's a list of some of the people involved in getting a book into the hands of that child: librarians, publishers, authors, designers, illustrators, editors, printers, distributors, etc etc. (And of course that's just a focus in terms of people - there are plenty of technologies and organisations that could appear in this list.) The technology of a book may be simple, but there's still a complex web of people involved in making a book possible - a book is a socio-technical system just as much as a Kindle.

I'm deeply grateful to their existence - perhaps especially librarians since when I was the boy in that picture, the books mostly were made available to me through libraries. Just thinking about the effect of books on my life, and the many people who've made that possible, makes me very moved.

Since I read Katherine Hayles' How we become posthuman, and Juanita Foster-Jones' excellent chapter on  information and libraries in Perspectives on Information (which I coedited with David Chapman), I keep coming back to the materiality of information. Ideas don't exist in isolation. They always have a material form - and the nature of that form fundamentally affects the experience of the ideas.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The information in music

I attended my daughter Alice's school concert this afternoon - mostly recorders with a bit of singing by 6 and 7 year olds. Quite amazing how much music can be obtained from just a few notes - the Year 1's could only play two notes on the recorder, the Year 2's perhaps five notes. But from those notes they were able to do remarkably much. 

So it's not an original topic but it got me thinking about the information content of music. The individual notes are the least part of it. First, there's the intervals - the shift from one note to another. One piece today was 'Indian', and this was signalled by the use of particular intervals we associate with Indian sounds. Second, we have the sequencing of those intervals together. Then there's the silence between the notes; and the rhythms; and the tempos... 

But even these things are just really about the notes as written by the composer. The interpretation of the notes is something different, and varies from one occasion to another. There's the relationship between the different performers. Then there's the interpretation given to the music (especially if it's just music without words), which can come through the title of the piece, or the programme notes, or an introduction by the conductor, or by the way the audience experience the piece. And then there's the setting, and the nature of the audience, and even the dress of the performers.

All of these different components (and many others that I've not named) carry information. The significance of each one might vary from one occasion to another, but to me the joy of music is their combination together. You can never step in the same river twice, said Heraclitus. Likewise, you can never listen to the same piece of music twice - even if it's made up of two notes on the recorder.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Life with the HP TouchPad - good and bad

I've lived with my HP Touchpad for some months now, so thought I'd write a few notes on what I do and don't like about it. I bought it cheap, in the famous firesale - a 32GB tablet for £115 wasn't to be passed up. So in some senses my expectations have always been low, and I've been prepared to be pleasantly surprised.
What I like:
  • The hardware is brilliant: big and very clear screen with excellent colours; a size that makes it easy to carry around but big enough to move; and great sound. The screen is a sensible 4:3 ratio rather than widescreen.
  • Viewing photos and watching videos on it is a delight - just the right size for that. (I haven't tried a full-length movie on it, but it works well for YouTube and iPlayer.)
  • Battery life is pretty good - certainly a day of substantial usage is no problem, even a couple of days. Much better than a laptop or smartphone.
  • It connects well to WiFi, shifts between known networks with little trouble, and is always on - pick it, press the on button and use it immediately - and it's already downloaded my emails.
  • It's ideal in size and portability for Skype calls, and the OS links to Skype fairly neatly. (The camera's nothing to shout about, but it's adequate.)
  • It easily opens files on networked services, especially Google Docs and Dropbox, without having a local copy. I use Dropbox more and more, and this means if I have WiFi around I can always access my Dropbox files.
  • The built-in applications are slick, smooth, and have a well designed UI.
  • The built-in Office client will open most Word, Excel and PDF files with little trouble, and view them easily.
  • It runs Flash. Shall I say that again? It runs Flash. This means it can handle practically anything in any website, without needing special handlers or apps (which the likes of YouTube have now) - in particular, big advantage in our house, it'll run all those Flash games on kids' websites such as CBeebies.
  • HP also sell a fairly inexpensive wireless keyboard for it, which works really well and is almost the size of a small laptop keyboard - I recently bought this.
  • (I should be mentioning  here the WebOS selling points, such as its multitasking, card-based UI, and ability to sync with multiple sources at once. They're all good, but really most of these are handled just as well by now by other tablets & smartphones.)
OK, enough positives. There's rather a lot I don't like:
  • It runs like a drain. Starting a new application takes around 10 seconds, even starting a new instance of the same application (which appears to be how it handles opening a new document, for example) is not much better. Web pages often load pretty slowly too.
  • The built-in web browser may handle Flash, but it doesn't do some really basic things - it won't store passwords (important with a touchscreen), and it won't even do searching. It's possible to buy a third-party web browser that does these things, but they're so basic as requirement that this shouldn't be necessary. 
  • Likewise for the Office client (which includes PDF) - no searching, no navigation controls. The only way to go through documents is by scrolling down and down and down. Fine for short documents, a right pain for longer files. Again, a paid-for app, SmartOffice, works better (but uses its own UI that's a bit odd in the WebOS setting).
  • Another very basic web requirement: it won't open documents (in  PDF, Word etc) on password-protected websites, such as a university Virtual Learning Environment or an academic journal. It just refuses. For serious use, this is a real problem. There are a few work-arounds that sometimes work, but often they don't. 
  • The on-screen keyboard is pretty cumbersome, and slow to enter text. There are no third-party keyboards (which has helped a lot in Android), and it has no arrow keys on the keyboard (a hack exists to put left and right arrows on the keyboard, which I have and helps - but this shouldn't be necessary, and may be broken by the next OS update). The wireless keyboard mentioned above helps a lot, but I don't always want to use that.
  • The functionality of the Office client (QuickOffice) is really quite limited - it was originally just a viewer and editing capability was added later, and not a lot of that. The paid-for SmartOffice is better, but not hugely so, and its interface is pretty clunky. Neither comes close in functionality, let alone UI, to Pages etc on the iPad.
  • Third-party applications are pretty limited, and those which do exist are expensive compared to their Android (or even iOS) equivalents. If the built-in apps and the browser are strong enough, this needn't matter, but it's not quite the case.
  • The email client is attractive and responsive, but doesn't display every email it accesses, which is a real pain (and it's not a server issue - my Android email client manages fine to display the same messages, accessing the server in the same way).
  • There's no real file manager, so that moving, renaming files etc depends on the capacity of a handler application. While the apps that handle Dropbox do it well, so if you have a file online that you want to get offline, it's pretty hard work. 
Many of the above negatives can be worked around in one way or another, but often quite with some quite cumbersome hacks which are pretty much beyond my capability (with 30+ years experience of using computers seriously, and a PhD in Computing!) so far beyond the ordinary user's capacity. And maybe you get what you pay for, but all the above were true when HP was selling the TouchPad for £400. It's good that the OS is open enough that hacks and third-party apps are possible to solve some of these things, but it really shouldn't be necessary for basic functionality like searching within files or 

Most of my negatives are software issues to do with the built-in operating system, WebOS, and its apps - indeed I think even the slowness is a software thing, as the hardware specs are decent enough. There's an Android port in the making, from the brilliant CyanogenMod people, which getting better and better, and in due course I'll install that on the TouchPad (it's dual boot so I don't need to lose WebOS). And that may solve all my problems! But it'll be a pity to have to do that.

I'm certainly glad I bought the tablet, and it's really useful to have around. I wish sometimes I'd bought an iPad, but then I paid less than a third of the price. In summary: the hardware is great, the overall experience is pretty good, but WebOS is severely flawed in a number of areas that make the device just not quite good enough.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

When time is not an illusion

The view from my office window in spring

"Time is an illusion - lunchtime doubly so."

The immortal wisdom of the great Ford Prefect (in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the  Galaxy) describes well the view many people have of time. It's all circular - what goes around, comes around - if the Tories are in power now, Labour will be soon. It's undoubtedly true in many ways. Things do happen much the same in cycles of time. My office window looks like this every year, and its pattern is regular and fairly predictable.

How we measure time is in many ways socially constructed. An excellent recent episode of In Our Time (sic) on Radio 4 told us that the Babylonians divided the hour into 60 minutes purely for mathematical convenience (they liked 60 because lots of other numbers divide into it). Likewise, when the face of mechanical clocks were invented, they paralleled sunrises, and the movement of the hand followed the same direction as the movement of the sun - so that 'clockwise' would be the other way round if the mechanical clock had been invented in the southern hemisphere.

But it's Holy Week, and that has a quite different conception of time. We rush towards Calvary and then we move on to Easter. There's no circularity here. The events happened once only, for all time. We commemorate them each year, but they don't come back again. We talk about "the first Christmas", but never "the first Easter". There was only one Easter, the extraordinary time when a wholly good man suffered and died terribly, and then was transformed completely after death by God. That was a one-time event. Ford Prefect was wrong: not all time is an illusion.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Giving or Contributing?

[Lightly edited version of piece written for our monthly church magazine.]

I have been concerned for some years about the use in the church of the term ‘giving’ to refer to our contributions to church funds. Giving is a wonderful thing to do – giving presents to people we love, giving money to causes we find important, giving hospitality to friends and those in need, and giving support to friends. There’s been a lot of talk recently about the idea of the ‘gift economy’, sharing with others without expecting a return. And the Bible is full of encouragements to give, especially to the poor and those on the margins.
However, giving is essentially voluntary. However highly we regard it, it’s an optional extra, on top of our other spending. If we don’t give things, we might feel bad, and those to whom we normally give might feel bad, but we have no sense of obligation to give.

I feel this is an unhelpful idea to think about the contributions we make to the finances of the church. I would draw an analogy with a household. To keep a household going requires certain costs – housing, utilities, food, communications and so on. Those members of the household who are able to contribute financially to these costs do so not in the form of ‘giving to the household’ but because it is necessary to do so, to keep the household running.

I suggest that it would be helpful to think in the same way of our financial contributions to the church being something that we do as a result of our membership of the church, an obligation not an act of generosity. Clearly each of us has a different ability to pay, given our income and necessary expenses, and some of us may be at our financial limits (especially given the current state of the economy), and nobody should feel the need to contribute more than they can afford. And many people contribute in other ways than money.

Ultimately we each need to think hard about whether we could increase our level of contribution.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Dynabook, forty years on

At some point last week I remembered Alan Kay's celebrated phrase "the best way to predict the future is to invent it". So this morning I've been thinking about the Dynabook, the way in which Alan Kay went about inventing the future, and reading his original paper on the subject, A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages, published in 1972. It fizzes with originality. Even today it feels fresh and lively - in 1972 it was something quite extraordinary. It is nothing less than a full-fledged vision for the devices we have today.

Kay was working at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in the early 70s, in the extraordinary time when that centre invented most of the computing technologies we rely on today - windowing systems, the graphical user interface, bitmapped displays, laser printers, local networking and so on. Kay was one of the originators of object-oriented programming and invented the Smalltalk language with which software on many of the Xerox computers was built. 

So Kay's article was informed by the absolute cutting edge of technology. He envisions a small portable computer, the size of a notebook (12" by 9", 30cm by 22cm), weighing no more than 4lb (1.8 kg), with plenty of onboard storage, a print-quality LCD screen, and a keyboard that could either be part of the hardware or virtual. The device would allow the user to read documents, and have ready networked access to libraries for downloading books. It would be cheap enough and easy enough to use that most people (adults and children) would have their own device and take it everywhere with them. In other words, it's what we have today in our tablet computers and small laptops, and various articles have been written comparing the Dynabook concept to the Apple iPad or to netbooks

The differences are interesting, however. Kay's driver in the article is not really technology, but education. He begins by bemoaning the poor use of technology within education, observing that most educational machines have not worked well, and saying that his goal in the article is to "discuss some aspects of the learning process which we feel can be augmented through technological media". He then progresses to have a case study of two nine-year old children using their Dynabooks to play a video game. It doesn't do what they want, so they revise it on the spot - because it turns out that the Dynabook is not just a passive device but can be programmed at will. The children research the physics of the game using the library function and then reprogram it so that it works more realistically. 

Kay proceeds to introduce a considerable amount of learning theory - Montessori, Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, Seymour Papert - and argues that "computers are an almost ideal medium for the expression of a children's epistemology". Only then does he introduce the hardware design that has proved so influential. In passing, he discusses issues like copyright and advertising on such devices. But it is clear that his goal is education - he argues near the end that "We do feel that the pedagogical merits of teaching algorithmic thinking, having easy editing etc. (all wrapped up in an environment which can go anywhere and can belong to anybody), are undeniable."

He admits near the end of the article that a certain amount of it is "speculation and fantasy", but he knew well that most of what he envisaged was either technologically possible in 1972 or would become so over the next few years. In that respect, it's amazing it took us so long. The tech community has long taken the Dynabook as a template, of course. I well remember as an undergraduate in Cambridge, c1990, being told by some computing entrepreneur (I forget who) that the Dynabook had not been possible until that moment, but now he was going to produce it. And every time a portable device arrives it's compared to the Dynabook at some point. But it really does feel like we have the hardware in place now. 

So did Alan Kay invent the future? Well, yes and no. Tablets and netbooks are certainly (fairly) cheap, very widespread (at least in rich countries), portable and easy to use. But what's very clearly missing is the active element, especially regarding programming. Tablets are used to surf the net, check and reply to emails and social media, watch video, listen to music, read books and magazines. Netbooks do many of the these things too - the reading and watching not quite so well, but with better keyboards they work better to create and edit documents. But both these device categories are passive in terms of the computing environment - you take things you're given. Apps for iPads and Android tablets aren't created on the tablets but on 'proper' computers with bigger screens and full keyboards. And while children might research their homework using a tablet, they're unlikely to be recreating a physical environment on one from scratch. 

The Dynabook was, and is, a revolutionary concept. But it's a revolution that's still unfinished.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Enveloping, the Singularity and conspiracy theories

Just back from a very interesting talk by Luciano Floridi, prof of the philosophy of information at the University of Hertfordshire. He was unable to come to our workshop The Difference That Makes a Difference 2011, but David Chapman and I have been reading his work quite a bit, so it was good to get to meet him. Luciano's title was "Enveloping the World: Understanding the Constraining Success of Smart Technologies", and he mostly talked about the interaction between technologies, especially those which might be seen as smart or even artificially intelligent, and their environment. He used the very helpful concept of enveloping from robotics, where a technology is situated within a constraining environment which has been tailored to make the robot work most efficiently; and he argued that the world as a whole has become tailored to enable us to interact smoothly with our supposedly smart technologies

One of the questions Luciano was asked afterwards concerned the 'Singularity' - Ray Kurzweil's theory that  ICTs are becoming progressively more 'intelligent', taken as a whole (i.e. if you look at the whole network) and that at some point in the future, they will pass a point where they reach real intelligence, and surpass that of humanity - whereupon they'll be in charge and there will be no turning back. It sounds like science fiction, but surprisingly large numbers of people in the tech community, especially in Silicon Valley, believe some version of it. It's essentially a secular form of millenarianism or the Rapture - the idea that Christ will return in glory, will judge the righteous and the unrighteous, and take the righteous with him to heaven. 

Personally I think it's bunkum. But as with the Rapture (which I also think is bunkum) it could potentially be dangerous bunkum, if believed by enough people and built into their worldviews. From time to time, American presidential candidates arise who are said to believe that the battle of Armageddon really will take place on the plains of Meggido - in modern-day Israel - and thereafter Christ will return, and that it's their job to help bring that about. Electing someone to high office who really believed that and really acted to make it happen is a pretty grim scenario. Likewise, if people designing the technologies through which so many people live their lives really believe they're working towards a complete transformation of the world into one led by AI, then they may act in ways to bring that out, which could be more hostile to humanity than the fairly benign process of mutual adaptation that Luciano described.

But it leaves with the question as to why people believe these things. I listened this morning to a podcast of Thinking Allowed, where Jovan Byford (from Social Sciences here at the OU) discussed his new book Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction. The presenter, Laurie Taylor, observed that many people in the States actually preferred to believe that J.F. Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA instead of by a madman, because it fitted better with their worldview of stability and control. Likewise, I wonder whether the Singularity gets its believers because it fits with the worldview that technology changes everything, and all humans can do is respond. 

Technology changes society, and society changes technology. But over time, they both change fundamental ideas, and these ideas in turn change both society and technology. The Singularity is not a fundamental idea in that sense, but enough people believe it to be so, it might change our technologies in way that really do change society.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Mission and discipleship

Good quote here from a book entitled Untamed: reactivating a missional form of discipleship by Alan and Deborah Hirsch (Baker Books, 2010, p.29), quoted by the ever readable Kurt Willems:
You simply cannot be a disciple without being a missionary – a sent one. For way too long discipleship has been limited to issues relating to our own personal morality and worked out in the context of the four walls of the church with its privatized religion. In doing this, we have severely neglected our biblical mandate to go and “make disciples.” We have narrowed the gospel message to just being about us. Please hear us: we don’t want to neglect issues of personal morality. To strive for holiness and maturity in our own personal lives is extremely important, but it is only half the picture; the other half is our God-given responsibility to the world around us. The fact is that you can’t be a disciple without being a missionary: no mission, no discipleship. It’s as simple as that.
As some of the comment on Kurt's blog makes clear, 'mission' here refers to action in the world of all sorts, not (just) evangelism. It fits well with so many things I've been thinking about recently, but especially the hymn The Summons by John Bell and Graham Maule that we sang at our church on Sunday, which begins:
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don't know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?