Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Danger of the Blindfold

When I started to try my hand at writing a blog, everyone gave me the same advice: “Figure out what your subject is going to be. You can’t just post about anything. You have to have a consistent subject matter so that people know what to expect when they follow your blog.” This is of course sound advice.

So I figured I would try to tackle the ways in which current technologies are affecting our culture, society, and individual lives. As I am fairly new to the world of nerdiness, most of the people that I know and interact with, know next to nothing about technology and don’t have any interest in learning about it. A good friend of mine left this comment for me:

"I'm definitely not your target blog-reading audience (I care nothing about techy stuff and I use apple products for the exact reason you pointed out- they just work and I don't have to think about it) so I'm no good for feedback, but I wanted to let you know that I read your blog as a show of support, friend :)"

While I do appreciate the support very much, something about this message left me feeling uneasy. If the average American doesn’t know, doesn’t understand, and doesn’t care about technology, then they aren’t going to be able to know the truth about it either.

I believe this is extremely dangerous.

I am going to try in this article to not browbeat anyone into feeling like they have to pay attention to every new event in world of blossoming technologies. Instead, I am going to try to illustrate why it could be dangerous for people to be disconnected from the realities of the tech world. I don’t ask that everyone pay attention, just that everyone know what could happen if they don’t.

Rupert Murdoch The most important thing that I have learned about tech culture is that it is sickeningly similar to government politics. Bending the truth, flat out lying, starting smear campaigns, and throwing around the weight of one's wallet are all standard practices.

Let us take for example the recent media circus surrounding Google’s changes to their privacy policies. I’ve been following this issue closely and have come to one simple conclusion: Google did an extremely good thing.

Google, like most companies that have several separate services, previously had multiple privacy policies, one for Gmail, one for Reader, one for Youtube, etc. Now that the number of services has grown, Google decided to chuck out the 60+ privacy policies that all essentially said the same thing and make one all-encompassing policy. And as a service to their customers, they decided to write this new policy in as simple a language as they could so that everyone could understand it. And now they are having their name dragged through the mud for their trouble.

If one were to take the time to actually read through every single privacy policy that Google formally had (I myself could only stomach a couple that were very redundant) they would realize that almost nothing has changed. Their new privacy policy says all the same things, only in layman's terms. The crux of which, in regards to this topic, is that by agreeing to the policy you give Google permission to share your information between their services.

Now that everyone understands what Google is saying, they are getting upset. Some even to the point of calling Google evil. To those people I have to ask: How did you think it worked? How did you think your Gmail contacts got onto your Android phone? How did you think you were able to share a Google Doc with someone else via their email address? All of those services that you have been praising and thanking Google for over the past several years, how could they work, if not by sharing?

These are not questions that require technology know how to answer. This is just plain common sense. However, because most people have been convinced that they don’t understand technology, they don’t take the time to apply common sense to the situations. People appear to feel that technology exists outside the realm of common sense, much the same way they feel that government and law do.

I minored in political science during my undergraduate studies. Still, most of the time, when I try to follow what is going on in our government, I am completely lost. This is a feeling I know that I share with most of the people that surround me. And because we don’t understand what is going on, we ignore it and become disengaged with it, leaving the people inside of the system free to do as they please as long as they can put a convincing media spin on it.

Tech companies work in much the same way. If one company is competing with another, all they have to do is create a convincing story about how terrible their competition is, and watch as the uninformed masses denounce their competitor and their products. This is a truth that most people probably already know. Most big business work this way. How is the tech industries like our government and different than any other major capitalist competition? The difference is impact.

If you decided to choose Coke over Pepsi, the world keeps spinning. If you buy a Snickers instead of a Milkyway, you might take in a few extra calories. If you choose Tide over Downy... I actually have no idea what happens. I don’t know anything about doing laundry. But if you choose between a tech company that supports open source and a company that builds proprietary software, you are making a choice on par with choosing between capitalism and socialism or Democrat and Republican. And if you don’t know the difference between open source and proprietary (or even what they each are) you are blindly choosing who you want to have the capital and market shares to decide your future.

Technology has seeped into almost every aspect of our daily lives. So the tech companies that create these products have a huge sway in how we live our lives. By choosing one company’s products over another, consumers are also choosing to follow the philosophies of of one company over another. Imagine what personal computing would look like today if Steve Jobs ideas had failed to catch on with consumers and Microsoft still held a virtual monopoly over the industry. Given no alternative to Windows Vista, I’m sure the number of violent crimes and suicides in this country would have skyrocketed.

I’ll be the first to admit, this sucks. Technology is supposed to make our lives easier. Not more complicated. And it often does. But it also brings with it politics. And politics are never easy.

So what to do? I’m not silly enough to believe that the average American citizen is going to start taking an hour and a half or more out of their day to stay current and aware of the politics that surround these companies and the products that they are bringing into our lives. My suggestion: just don’t believe everything you hear.

The same way most people know to ignore any sort of statistic quoted by Fox News in regards to Barack Obama, people should learn to take it with a grain of salt when the Wall Street Journal or NY Post tells you about what Google is doing. Rupert Murdoch hates Google just as much as Fox News hates Obama. Is Google a perfect company? No. They screw up sometimes. They take the sleazy cooperate road from time to time. Just like Obama makes poor decisions or says stupid things once in awhile. But whether you support our president or not, it is completely obvious to anyone who is paying even a little bit of attention, that Fox News stretches the truth for their own ends.

It is increasingly important as we pioneer the future that people learn to recognize these relationships. Learn to see when they are being told objective fact and when they are being fed a bowl full of crap.

It is difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to be completely aware of who is inventing what, why they are inventing it, how will they use it, where do their loyalties lie, what are the philosophies that govern their decision making, etc. But what is possible, is to pay attention the the subtext of major media coverage. Reading between the lines is something that most of us have already learned to do with the media’s coverage of government. Translating those skills to the politics that surround scientific development and engineering could help all of us from losing our grip on how these industries are affecting our lives and our futures.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Ubuntu on Android: The most AMAZING thing no one has heard about

It was announced that a version of Ubuntu was going to be released to run alongside Android utilizing the same Linux kernel for smart phones that have enough power to run it.

“Wait. What the hell does that mean!?”

It means good things. I promise.

I know that most people don’t know what Ubuntu is or why they would want it on their smart phone. However, since this is a sincerely wonderful development and one that I personally believe will be the start of an extremely important trend in the all of our technological futures, I’m going to try to explain it as best I can and then comment on all the wonderful things I think it could bring to our lives. So please, just bare with me.

Since most people know what an iPhone is, let me start with a hypothetical. Let’s say you have an iPhone. It runs on an operating system called iOS. This is the basic touch screen operating system found on all iPhones, iPads, and iTouches. You also have a Macbook or iMac at your home. It runs on OSX, the basic desktop operating system that we all know and love.

Now let’s say you have a new imaginary iPhone that has a special feature. When you plug this iPhone into a tv or any other type of stand-alone screen, instead of simply seeing a large version of your phone’s screen, you see the OSX desktop. What this would mean is when you plug this iPhone into an external monitor (like a TV) and a keyboard/mouse, it automatically becomes a fully fledged desktop computer. How amazing would that be?

That is exactly what Ubuntu on Android means. Turning your Android phone into an all-in-one, multiple system device. You will no longer need a spearate home computer or laptop, just a screen and keyboard.

Ubuntu is a Linux based operating system. If you don’t know what Linux is, don’t worry. In the simplest terms, it is an operating system for nerds. Businessmen have Microsoft Windows, artists have Apple OSX, nerds have Linux **. Ubuntu is one of the most popular and user friendly versions of Linux currently available. Think: the opposite of Windows Vista (note: this is a good link).

So the basic process will go like this: You will download this free Ubuntu software onto your Android phone. As long as you are using the phone as a phone, nothing changes. You won’t be able to tell that anything is different. The magic only happens when you plug your phone into a screen. Then, automatically, your phone will switch over to a full desktop version of Ubuntu with all of the same apps and files and memory as your phone. Meaning that you wont have to copy your files onto multiple hard-drives, you wont have to download the same apps on multiple machines, and all of your history will live in one place.

And for the laptop lovers, there will most likely be laptop docks that are just an empty laptop screen and keyboard that you can plug the phone into. And based on other technology that is currently hitting the market, we may even end up with empty tablet screens where phones can be docked and turned into full-sized tablets.

“Wait a second. You said Ubuntu is Linux. And Linux is for nerds. I’m not a nerd. So why would I want an operating system that I can’t use?”

This is a fair question. Linux has customarily been considered something for the very computer savvy people only. Linux allows for an unimaginable amount of freedom and versatility compared to Windows and OSX, but this freedom also makes it much more complicated to use.

That is why, about 10 years ago, a bunch of guys got together and made it their mission to create a version of Linux that a lay person could understand that still allowed advanced users the freedom they love. And so Ubuntu was born.

I, like most people in my age range, began my digital life on a Windows PC. Then around 2005, I switched to a Mac. Then about 8 months ago, some friends convinced me to give Ubuntu a try. I thought, “What the hell. I’ll struggle with it for a couple of weeks and then give up on it. Whatever.” Twenty minutes after turning it on for the first time, I was able to do almost everything that I could on my Mac with almost no effort at all. It was that easy to learn. It was way easier to understand than Windows and way more customizable then OSX.

At this point I should probably point out an important aspect of Ubuntu. It is open source. Which means that it is free. FREE. No money, no licensing nonsense, nothing. Free.

“Ok, but I’m an Apple user. I have an iPhone. Why should any of this matter to me?”

Simple. If this technology takes off, Apple is more likely to consider building this design structure into their devices. Which, in my humble opinion, would be much better than what it appears that they are planning now, which is slowly doing away with desktop style computing all together and just pushing everyone onto mobile devices. Which is quickly turning into a major kick in the privates to anyone who needs their desktop Apple hardware for professional use.

So now the question becomes, why is this important? What does it really do for us, the users of this technology?

For the private user, this means saving a lot of money. Instead of having to own several expensive devices, you can own one device and several cheaper skins. And since smart phones tend to be less expensive than desktops, laptops, tablets, and cable boxes, the potential savings are substantial. Instead of getting a $1,000.00 laptop, you can buy a $100 dollar laptop skin. Instead of buying a $1400.00 iMac, you can buy a $150 screen. You see where I’m going with this?

This also increases mobility. Being able to place your entire digital life, not just your standard mobile stuff, but everything, into your pocket is a big advantage. Especially at the airport.

At the cooperate level, this system could save millions in time, resource, and man power for IT departments. Instead of having to take care of 2 or 3 devices for every employee, you have one item to take care of per person. And the increased mobility means increased efficiency. Since everyone has their computers in their pockets, moving to different offices for travel, renovations, or whatever else keeps people away from their offices becomes much simpler.

This mobility could also come in handy for artists as well. As more and more of the artistic mediums move into the digital realm, artist are regaining a considerable amount of flexibility in where they can be when creating their art. If they aren’t chained to their studios, then they are free to travel far and wide to gain inspiration. However, most artists still need the power and versatility of a complete desktop operating system to create their work. Armed with this technology, all they would need to do is plug into the TV at their hotel.

If you are a small business owner, you get all of the benefits listed above, as well as being able to save money in other important ways. You won’t need as much space to accommodate the storage of excessive hardware, you’ll be likely to save a great deal on your energy cost (note: this is an educated guess on my part based on what I know of hardware energy use), and you can save a bunch of money on purchasing software/hardware for your employees. Ubuntu is free, and if you are using a cloud system, your employees might be able to simply use their own personal phones (though this would probably depend on how secure your company information is).

The point is, this is a major step towards creating a modular version of a personal computing culture in which people can carry their entire digital lives in there pockets without having to be limited by the constraints of said pocket hardware. A culture of less necessity, less waste, less economic separation, and more freedom. I don’t know about you, but I think that sounds pretty sweet.

**If there are any nerds reading this, please don’t get angry with me. I know that Linux is not an operating system in and of itself, but I’m trying not to confuse people, so cut me some slack.