Status update

This is not exact­ly a now page, but I thought I would write up what I am doing at the moment since last report­ing on my sta­tus in my end-of-year report.

The major­i­ty of my work­days are spent doing free­lance design con­sult­ing. My pri­ma­ry gig has been through Eend at the Dutch Vic­tim Sup­port Foun­da­tion, where until very recent­ly I was part of a team build­ing online ser­vices. I helped out with prod­uct strat­e­gy, set­ting up a lean UX design process, and get­ting an inte­grat­ed agile design and devel­op­ment team up and run­ning. The first ser­vices are now ship­ping so it is time for me to move on, after 10 months of very grat­i­fy­ing work. I real­ly enjoy work­ing in the pub­lic sec­tor and I hope to be doing more of it in future.

So yes, this means I am avail­able and you can hire me to do strat­e­gy and design for soft­ware prod­ucts and ser­vices. Just send me an email.

Short­ly before the Dutch nation­al elec­tions of this year, Iskan­der and I gath­ered a group of fel­low tech work­ers under the ban­ner of “Tech Sol­i­dar­i­ty NL to dis­cuss the con­cern­ing lurch to the right in nation­al pol­i­tics and what our field can do about it. This has devel­oped into a small but active com­mu­ni­ty who gath­er month­ly to edu­cate our­selves and devel­op plans for col­lec­tive action. I am get­ting a huge boost out of this. Fig­ur­ing out how to be a left­ist in this day and age is not easy. The only way to do it is to prac­tice and for that reflec­tion with peers is invalu­able. Build­ing and facil­i­tat­ing a group like this is huge­ly edu­ca­tion­al too. I have learned a lot about how a com­mu­ni­ty is boot-strapped and nur­tured.

If you are in the Nether­lands, your pol­i­tics are left of cen­ter, and you work in tech­nol­o­gy, con­sid­er your­self invit­ed to join.

And final­ly, the last major thing on my plate is a con­tin­u­ing effort to secure a PhD posi­tion for myself. I am get­ting great sup­port from peo­ple at Delft Uni­ver­si­ty of Tech­nol­o­gy, in par­tic­u­lar Gerd Kortuem. I am focus­ing on inter­net of things prod­ucts that have fea­tures dri­ven by machine learn­ing. My ulti­mate aim is to devel­op pro­to­typ­ing tools for design and devel­op­ment teams that will help them cre­ate more inno­v­a­tive and more eth­i­cal solu­tions. The first step for this will be to con­duct field research inside com­pa­nies who are cre­at­ing such prod­ucts right now. So I am reach­ing out to peo­ple to see if I can secure a rea­son­able amount of poten­tial col­lab­o­ra­tors for this, which will go a long way in prov­ing the fea­si­bil­i­ty of my whole plan.

If you know of any com­pa­nies that devel­op con­sumer-fac­ing prod­ucts that have a con­nect­ed hard­ware com­po­nent and make use of machine learn­ing to dri­ve fea­tures, do let me know.

That’s about it. Free­lance UX con­sult­ing, left­ist tech-work­er organ­is­ing and design-for-machine-learn­ing research. Quite hap­py with that mix, real­ly.

Curiosity is our product

A few weeks ago I facil­i­tat­ed a dis­cus­sion on ‘advo­ca­cy in a post-truth era’ at the Euro­pean Dig­i­tal Rights Initiative’s annu­al gen­er­al assem­bly. And last night I was part of a dis­cus­sion on fake news at a behav­iour design meet­up in Ams­ter­dam. This was a good occa­sion to pull togeth­er some of my notes and fig­ure out what I think is true about the ‘fake news’ phe­nom­e­non.

There is plen­ty of good writ­ing out there explor­ing the his­to­ry and cur­rent state of post-truth polit­i­cal cul­ture.

Kellyanne Conway’s “alter­na­tive facts” and Michael Gove’s “I think peo­ple have had enough of experts” are just two exam­ples of the right’s appro­pri­a­tion of what I would call epis­te­mo­log­i­cal rel­a­tivism. Post-mod­ernism was fun while it worked to advance our left­ist agen­da. But now that the tables are turned we’re not enjoy­ing it quite as much any­more, are we?

Part of the fact-free pol­i­tics play­book goes back at least as far as big tobacco’s efforts to dis­cred­it the anti-smok­ing lob­by. “Doubt is our prod­uct” still applies to mod­ern day reac­tionary move­ments such as cli­mate change deniers and anti-vax­ers.

The dou­ble wham­my of news indus­try com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion and inter­net plat­form con­sol­i­da­tion has cre­at­ed fer­tile ground for coor­di­nat­ed efforts by var­i­ous groups to turn the sow­ing of doubt all the way up to eleven.

There is Russia’s “fire­hose of false­hood” which sends a high vol­ume of mes­sages across a wide range of chan­nels with total dis­re­gard for truth or even con­sis­ten­cy in a rapid, con­tin­u­ous and repet­i­tive fash­ion. They seem to be hav­ing fun desta­bil­is­ing west­ern democ­ra­cies — includ­ing the Nether­lands — with­out any appar­ent end-goal in mind.

And then there is the out­rage mar­ket­ing lever­aged by trolls both minor and major. Piss­ing off main­stream media builds an audi­ence on the fringes and in the under­ground. Jour­nal­ists are held hostage by fig­ures such as Milo because they depend on sto­ries that trig­ger strong emo­tions for dis­tri­b­u­tion, eye­balls, clicks and ulti­mate­ly rev­enue.

So, giv­en all of this, what is to be done? First some bad news. Facts, the weapon of choice for lib­er­als, don’t appear to work. This is empir­i­cal­ly evi­dent from recent events, but it also appears to be borne out by psy­chol­o­gy.

Facts are often more com­pli­cat­ed than the untruths they are sup­posed to counter. It is also eas­i­er to remem­ber a sim­ple lie than a com­pli­cat­ed truth. Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters fur­ther, facts tend to be bor­ing. Final­ly, and most inter­est­ing­ly, there is some­thing called the ‘back­fire effect’: we become more entrenched in our views when con­front­ed with con­tra­dict­ing facts, because they are threat­en­ing to our group iden­ti­ties.

More bad news. Giv­en the speed at which false­hoods spread through our net­works, fact-check­ing is use­less. Fact-check­ing is after-the-fact-check­ing. Worse, when media fact-check false­hoods on their front pages they are sim­ply pro­vid­ing even more air­time to them. From a strate­gic per­spec­tive, when you debunk, you allow your­self to be cap­tured by your opponent’s frame, and you’re also on the defen­sive. In Boy­di­an terms you are caught in their OODA loop, when you should be work­ing to take back the ini­tia­tive, and you should be offer­ing an alter­na­tive nar­ra­tive.

I am not hope­ful main­stream media will save us from these dynam­ics giv­en the real­i­ties of the busi­ness mod­els they oper­ate inside of. Jour­nal­ists inside of these organ­i­sa­tions are typ­i­cal­ly over­worked, just hold­ing on for dear life and churn­ing out sto­ries at a rapid clip. In short, there is no time to ori­ent and manoeu­vre. For bad-faith actors, they are sit­ting ducks.

What about lit­er­a­cy? If only peo­ple knew about chur­nal­ism, the atten­tion econ­o­my, and fil­ter bub­bles ‘they’ would become immune to the lies ped­dled by reac­tionar­ies and return to the lib­er­al fold. Per­son­al­ly I find these claims high­ly uncon­vinc­ing not to men­tion con­de­scend­ing.

My cur­rent work­ing the­o­ry is that we, all of us, buy into the sto­ries that acti­vate one or more of our group iden­ti­ties, regard­less of wether they are fact-based or out­right lies. This is called ‘moti­vat­ed rea­son­ing’. Since this is a fact of psy­chol­o­gy, we are all sus­cep­ti­ble to it, includ­ing lib­er­als who are sup­pos­ed­ly defend­ers of fact-based rea­son­ing.

Seri­ous­ly though, what about lit­er­a­cy? I’m sor­ry, no. There is evi­dence that sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­cy actu­al­ly increas­es polar­i­sa­tion. Moti­vat­ed rea­son­ing trumps fac­tu­al knowl­edge you may have. The same research shows how­ev­er that curios­i­ty in turn trumps moti­vat­ed rea­son­ing. The way I under­stand the dis­tinc­tion between lit­er­a­cy and curios­i­ty is that the for­mer is about knowl­edge while the lat­ter is about atti­tude. Moti­vat­ed rea­son­ing isn’t coun­ter­act­ed by know­ing stuff, but by want­i­ng to know stuff.

This is a mixed bag. Offer­ing facts is com­par­a­tive­ly easy. Spark­ing curios­i­ty requires sto­ry­telling which in turn requires imag­i­na­tion. If we’re pre­sent­ed with a fact we are not invit­ed to ask ques­tions. How­ev­er, if we are pre­sent­ed with ques­tions and those ques­tions are wrapped up in sto­ries that cre­ate emo­tion­al stakes, some of the views we hold might be desta­bilised.

In oth­er words, if doubt is the prod­uct ped­dled by our oppo­nents, then we should start traf­fick­ing in curios­i­ty.

Further reading

Artificial intelligence as partner

Some notes on arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, tech­nol­o­gy as part­ner and relat­ed user inter­face design chal­lenges. Most­ly notes to self, not sure I am adding much to the debate. Just sum­maris­ing what I think is impor­tant to think about more. Warn­ing: Dense with links.

Matt Jones writes about how arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence does not have to be a slave, but can also be part­ner.

I’m per­son­al­ly much more inter­est­ed in machine intel­li­gence as human aug­men­ta­tion rather than the oft-hyped AI assis­tant as a sep­a­rate embod­i­ment.

I would add a third pos­si­bil­i­ty, which is AI as mas­ter. A com­mon fear we humans have and one I think only grow­ing as things like Alpha­Go and new Boston Dynam­ics robots keep hap­pen­ing.

I have had a tweet pinned to my time­line for a while now, which is a quote from Play Mat­ters.

tech­no­logy is not a ser­vant or a mas­ter but a source of expres­sion, a way of being”

So this idea actu­al­ly does not just apply to AI but to tech in gen­er­al. Of course, as tech gets smarter and more inde­pen­dent from humans, the idea of a ‘third way’ only grows in impor­tance.

More tweet­ing. A while back, short­ly after AlphaGo’s vic­to­ry, James tweet­ed:

On the one hand, we must insist, as Kas­parov did, on Advanced Go, and then Advanced Every­thing Else https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advanced_Chess

Advanced Chess is a clear exam­ple of humans and AI part­ner­ing. And it is also an exam­ple of tech­nol­o­gy as a source of expres­sion and a way of being.

Also, in a WIRED arti­cle on Alpha­Go, some­one who had played the AI repeat­ed­ly says his game has improved tremen­dous­ly.

So that is the promise: Arti­fi­cial­ly intel­li­gent sys­tems which work togeth­er with humans for mutu­al ben­e­fit.

Now of course these AIs don’t just arrive into the world ful­ly formed. They are cre­at­ed by humans with par­tic­u­lar goals in mind. So there is a design com­po­nent there. We can design them to be part­ners but we can also design them to be mas­ters or slaves.

As an aside: Maybe AIs that make use of deep learn­ing are par­tic­u­lar­ly well suit­ed to this part­ner mod­el? I do not know enough about it to say for sure. But I was struck by this piece on why Google ditched Boston Dynam­ics. There appar­ent­ly is a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence between holis­tic and reduc­tion­ist approach­es, deep learn­ing being holis­tic. I imag­ine reduc­tion­ist AI might be more depen­dent on humans. But this is just wild spec­u­la­tion. I don’t know if there is any­thing there.

This insis­tence of James on “advanced every­thing else” is a world view. A pol­i­tics. To allow our­selves to be increas­ing­ly entan­gled with these sys­tems, to not be afraid of them. Because if we are afraid, we either want to sub­ju­gate them or they will sub­ju­gate us. It is also about not obscur­ing the sys­tems we are part of. This is a sen­ti­ment also expressed by James in the same series of tweets I quot­ed from ear­li­er:

These emer­gences are also the best mod­el we have ever built for describ­ing the true state of the world as it always already exists.

And there is over­lap here with ideas expressed by Kevin in ‘Design as Par­tic­i­pa­tion’:

[W]e are no longer just using com­put­ers. We are using com­put­ers to use the world. The obscured and com­plex code and engi­neer­ing now engages with peo­ple, resources, civics, com­mu­ni­ties and ecosys­tems. Should design­ers con­tin­ue to priv­i­lege users above all oth­ers in the sys­tem? What would it mean to design for par­tic­i­pants instead? For all the par­tic­i­pants?

AI part­ners might help us to bet­ter see the sys­tems the world is made up of and engage with them more deeply. This hope is expressed by Matt Webb, too:

with the re-emer­gence of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (only this time with a bud­dy-style user inter­face that actu­al­ly works), this ques­tion of “doing some­thing for me” vs “allow­ing me to do even more” is going to get even more pro­nounced. Both are effec­tive, but the first sucks… or at least, it sucks accord­ing to my own per­son­al pol­i­tics, because I regard indi­vid­ual alien­ation from soci­ety and com­plex sys­tems as one of the huge threats in the 21st cen­tu­ry.

I am remind­ed of the mixed-ini­tia­tive sys­tems being researched in the area of pro­ce­dur­al con­tent gen­er­a­tion for games. I wrote about these a while back on the Hub­bub blog. Such sys­tems are part­ners of design­ers. They give some­thing like super pow­ers. Now imag­ine such pow­ers applied to oth­er prob­lems. Quite excit­ing.

Actu­al­ly, in the afore­men­tioned arti­cle I dis­tin­guish between tools for mak­ing things and tools for inspect­ing pos­si­bil­i­ty spaces. In the first case design­ers manip­u­late more abstract rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the intend­ed out­come and the sys­tem gen­er­ates the actu­al out­put. In the sec­ond case the sys­tem visu­alis­es the range of pos­si­ble out­comes giv­en a par­tic­u­lar con­fig­u­ra­tion of the abstract rep­re­sen­ta­tion. These two are best paired.

From a design per­spec­tive, a lot remains to be fig­ured out. If I look at those mixed-ini­tia­tive tools I am struck by how poor­ly they com­mu­ni­cate what the AI is doing and what its capa­bil­i­ties are. There is a huge user inter­face design chal­lenge there.

For stuff focused on get­ting infor­ma­tion, a con­ver­sa­tion­al UI seems to be the cur­rent local opti­mum for work­ing with an AI. But for tools for cre­ativ­i­ty, to use the two-way split pro­posed by Vic­tor, dif­fer­ent UIs will be required.

What shape will they take? What visu­al lan­guage do we need to express the par­tic­u­lar prop­er­ties of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence? What approach­es can we take in addi­tion to per­son­i­fy­ing AI as bots or char­ac­ters? I don’t know and I can hard­ly think of any good exam­ples that point towards promis­ing approach­es. Lots to be done.

"Anonymous Scientology 1 by David Shankbone" by David Shankbone - David Shankbone. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Anonymous_Scientology_1_by_David_Shankbone.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Anonymous_Scientology_1_by_David_Shankbone.JPG

Polit­i­cal play is a mode of think­ing crit­i­cal­ly about pol­i­tics, and of devel­op­ing an ago­nis­tic approach to those pol­i­tics. This ago­nism is framed through car­ni­va­lesque chaos and humour, through the appro­pri­a­tion of the world for play­ing. By play­ing, by care­ful­ly nego­ti­at­ing the pur­pose of play­ing between plea­sure and the polit­i­cal, we engage in a trans­for­ma­tive act.

Quote tak­en from PARTICIPATORY REPUBLICS: PLAY AND THE POLITICAL by Miguel Sicart on the Play Mat­ters book blog.

I love where Miguel is going with his think­ing on the rela­tion­ship between play, pol­i­tics, appro­pri­a­tion and resis­tance.

I am inter­est­ed in this because at Hub­bub we have been explor­ing sim­i­lar themes through the mak­ing of games and things-you-can-play-with.

The big chal­lenges with this remain in the area of instru­men­tal­i­sa­tion – if you set out to design a thing that encour­ages this kind of play you often end up with some­thing that is far from play­ful.

But the oppor­tu­ni­ties are huge because so much of today’s strug­gles of indi­vid­u­als against the state relate to leg­i­bil­i­ty and con­trol in some way, and play is the per­fect anti­dote.

For exam­ple short­ly after read­ing Miguel’s piece I came across this McKen­zie Wark piece on extrastate­craft via Hon­or Harg­er. Extrastate­craft shifts the focus from archi­tec­ture and pol­i­tics to infra­struc­ture.

Infra­struc­ture is how pow­er deploys itself, and it does so much faster than law or democ­ra­cy.

You should read the whole thing. What’s fas­ci­nat­ing is that Wark briefly dis­cuss­es strate­gies and tac­tics for resist­ing such state­craft.

So the world might be run not by state­craft but at least in part by extrastate­craft. East­er­ling: “Avoid­ing bina­ry dis­po­si­tions, this field of activ­i­ty calls for exper­i­ments with ongo­ing forms of lever­age, reci­procity, and vig­i­lance to counter the vio­lence imma­nent in the space of extrastate­craft.” (149) She has some inter­est­ing obser­va­tions on the tac­tics for this. Some exploit the infor­ma­tion­al char­ac­ter of third nature, such as gos­sip, rumor and hoax. She also dis­cuss­es the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the gift or of exag­ger­at­ed com­pli­ance (relat­ed per­haps to Zizek’s over-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion), and of mim­ic­ry and com­e­dy.

Gos­sip, rumor and hoax” sound a lot like the car­ni­va­lesque reflec­tive-in-action polit­i­cal play Miguel is talk­ing about.

To fin­ish off, here’s a video of the great James C. Scott on the art of not being gov­erned. He talks at length about how peo­ples have his­tor­i­cal­ly fled from state­craft into geo­graph­i­cal zones unreach­able by power’s infra­struc­ture. And how they deploy their own, state-resis­tant infra­struc­ture (such as par­tic­u­lar kinds of crops) to remain illeg­i­ble and uncap­turable.

Reboot 10 slides and video

I am break­ing radio-silence for a bit to let you know the slides and video for my Reboot 10 pre­sen­ta­tion are now avail­able online, in case you’re inter­est­ed. I pre­sent­ed this talk before at The Web and Beyond, but this time I had a lot more time, and I pre­sent­ed in Eng­lish. I there­fore think this might still be of inter­est to some peo­ple.1 As always, I am very inter­est­ed in receiv­ing con­struc­tive crit­i­cism Just drop me a line in the com­ments.

Update: It occurred to me that it might be a good idea to briefly sum­ma­rize what this is about. This is a pre­sen­ta­tion in two parts. In the first, I the­o­rize about the emer­gence of games that have as their goal the con­vey­ing of an argu­ment. These games would use the real-time city as their plat­form. It is these games that I call urban pro­ce­dur­al rhetorics. In the sec­ond part I give a few exam­ples of what such games might look like, using a series of sketch­es.

The slides, posted to SlideShare, as usual:

The video, hosted on the Reboot website:

  1. I did post a tran­script in Eng­lish before, in case you pre­fer read­ing to lis­ten­ing. []

Urban procedural rhetorics — transcript of my TWAB 2008 talk

This is a tran­script of my pre­sen­ta­tion at The Web and Beyond 2008: Mobil­i­ty in Ams­ter­dam on 22 May. Since the major­i­ty of pay­ing atten­dees were local I pre­sent­ed in Dutch. How­ev­er, Eng­lish appears to be the lin­gua fran­ca of the inter­net, so here I offer a trans­la­tion. I have uploaded the slides to SlideShare and hope to be able to share a video record­ing of the whole thing soon.

Update: I have uploaded a video of the pre­sen­ta­tion to Vimeo. Many thanks to Almar van der Krogt for record­ing this.

In 1966 a num­ber of mem­bers of Pro­vo took to the streets of Ams­ter­dam car­ry­ing blank ban­ners. Pro­vo was a non­vi­o­lent anar­chist move­ment. They pri­mar­i­ly occu­pied them­selves with pro­vok­ing the author­i­ties in a “ludic” man­ner. Noth­ing was writ­ten on their ban­ners because the may­or of Ams­ter­dam had banned the slo­gans “free­dom of speech”, “democ­ra­cy” and “right to demon­strate”. Regard­less, the mem­bers were arrest­ed by police, show­ing that the author­i­ties did not respect their right to demon­strate.1

Good after­noon every­one, my name is Kars Alfrink, I’m a free­lance inter­ac­tion design­er. Today I’d like to talk about play in pub­lic space. I believe that with the arrival of ubiq­ui­tous com­put­ing in the city new forms of play will be made pos­si­ble. The tech­nolo­gies we shape will be used for play wether we want to or not. As William Gib­son writes in Burn­ing Chrome:

…the street finds its own uses for things”

For exam­ple: Skate­board­ing as we now know it — with its empha­sis on aer­i­al acro­bat­ics — start­ed in emp­ty pools like this one. That was done with­out per­mis­sion, of course…

Only lat­er half-pipes, ramps, verts (which by the way is derived from ‘ver­ti­cal’) and skateparks arrived — areas where skate­board­ing is tol­er­at­ed. Skate­board­ing would not be what it is today with­out those first few emp­ty pools.2

Con­tin­ue read­ing Urban pro­ce­dur­al rhetorics — tran­script of my TWAB 2008 talk

  1. The web­site of Gram­schap con­tains a chronol­o­gy of the Pro­vo move­ment in Dutch. []
  2. For a vivid account of the emer­gence of the ver­ti­cal style of skate­board­ing see the doc­u­men­tary film Dog­town and Z-Boys. []