Thursday, 28 June 2018

Exam Pressure

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Its exam time in education and we are talking about the problems of high stakes testing ... again. For as long as I remember those involved in education have been talking about this every year at this time ... its like groundhog day ... we go round and round .. we recognise the problem but can't  get out of the loop.

Not only is formal education stuck in an exam loop but its stuck in a positive feedback loop .. the problem with exams just seems to get worse every year.

The problem is that high stakes testing distorts the education system to its own ends - rather than getting a balanced broad education that draws out and develops the individual we get instead an education that programs and fills the individual with the things they will be tested on, in other words, education increasingly means teaching to the test.

The problem is that those with the ability to change things are the least able to change things - those in positions of power and authority are products of the system ... can the products of the system change the system? Those in positions of power and authority in education have done well by the system - they are well qualified and are good at taking exams ... can we really expect them to deny the system that made them and suggest something else. In fact, those in positions of power and authority just reinforce the the containment of education by exams .. they suggest more competition for more measurement ... league tables for schools and Ofsted gradings are so important but exam achievement is the crucial factor in all of this - everything comes to get related to its impact on exam achievements.

I can only see the effect of exams in education getting more powerful not less. Not only are leaders of education products of the exam system themselves but are the type who are driven by results and driven by data - they crave measurement and to get results they will demand more measurement.

Technology is of course complicit in the hold that testing and measurement has over formal education. Learning environments are now managed learning environments and technology is the meat grinder - processing, analysing dissecting learners as data subjects and discarding those who don't, won't or can't make the grade.

Resistance is futile .. schools, colleges, teachers and students all have to succumb to the system .. their future depends on it - they have to get the best exam results they can for life outside the system can be very hard indeed. ... Poor exam results can affect you for life - it can almost be like a criminal record checked at every transition you make ... you want a job ... the employer will look at your grades first ... want to study ... your college will check your grades. Good grades are a passport to a good life ... no wonder the those with wealth and power are happy with the way things are - entrenching privilege.

The end result of all this is more of the same ... so many see the problem but the formal education system is on exam auto-pilot and automation is where it will ultimately go .. there are so many vested interests it seems inevitable. The formal education system will literally become an exam factory with machines processing our young for tech capitalists in the interests of capitalism. Machine processing is so much more efficient in closing the circle to teach to the test ... exam results will be so much more predictable with personalised learning and your artificially intelligent teacher who can monitor your every move and spoon feed you what you need at just the right time ... if dogs and pigeons can do it people must be able to as well.

Formal education will become an exam factory ... for real learning we will need to look elsewhere.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Technology ... Don't Run Me Over

Technology is a tool but when it comes to problems, accidents or mistakes we always "blame the workman never the tool" and god help us if we should get in the way.

When the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened in 1830 William HuskissonMP, understandably unfamiliar with railway travel, stepped on the tracks and was by struck and fatally injured by Stephenson's Rocket. Commercial interests prevailed and the directors and engineers of the company were explicitly absolved of all blame and the huge amounts of publicity greatly increased public awareness of the potential of the railway. This same story repeats through the history of technology development and today it is with automated vehicles or driverless cars ... "Police chief said Uber victim “came from the shadows”—don’t believe it"  and "Tesla issues strongest statement yet blaming driver for deadly crash".

Technology developers may have grand visions but to get stuff done they need capital to build it and capital is of course driven by business and commercial interests. Technological optimism and powerful commercial self interest blinkers technology development to side issues and unintended consequences and turns it into a steamroller that crushes anything in its path.

Its easy to be a tech fanboy and jump on the tech bandwagon or at least go along for ride but criticise technology development, try to draw attention to the side issues and unintended consequences or try to stop technology and you will feel the wrath of tech zealots and risk being driven over by them ... it's heresy to go against determined technologists.

"Move fast and break things" in the gold rush to the next big thing and standards are dropped to promote innovation and push technology forward but its only in hindsight that we see the wake of unintended consequences and side issues we never saw through the blinkers looking forward. "Lessons will be learned" ... we hear time and time again ... and only then are the wider issues acknowledged, the safeguards and regulations applied and care taken ... because the technology is forced to. 

Technology as a tool is one thing but when a tool becomes a machine, is automated and can even "think" for itself it can become dangerous. Within a factory we can be protected by putting machines in cages but what about machines that are "in the wild" and among us?

Technologists are determined and want us to design our lives, work and planet around it ... the technology solution puts people in technology cages.  In the fight for our public space one narrative of "networked urbanism" envisages the city driven by data analytics and networks controlled in part by machines. In this "smart city", technological solutionism is rampant, with everything connected and automated. This is Googleville: a posthuman urban laboratory. 

Technologists think of systems and are naturally enough systems thinkers and even see people as systems ... if not machines. The problem is that the real world and people aren't machines and blinkered technology will always get blindsided by something it cannot predict, determine or even see ahead. Systems thinking is appropriate for the innards of tech but when it comes to its application in the real we need more inclusive, diverse and holistic thinking .. we need to put humans not just in the loop but at the centre of our design thinking if we want to have a chance at averting major social and environmental problems caused by technology in the future .. move over, Stem: why the world needs humanities graduates

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Phone For Life

The Phoneblocks concept 
Could closed integrated systems be closing innovation and development in the smartphone market?

Over the last decade smartphones had been developing quickly - smartphone makers released news phones every year and people typically replaced their phones every 2 or 3. However, smartphone innovation has slowed to a crawl and doesn't seem to be going anywhere fast anymore ... the annual new phone releases are for the most part small incremental changes. Smartphones today seem good enough - its no longer really necessary to change your phone every two or three years ... yet the market and products we have are locked into the short product cycle of the past. Nowhere is this more evident than with smartphone batteries and with the iPhone slowdown update - while Apple said this was to prevent older phones shutting people were suspicious that this was to "encourage" them to buy a new phone. Apple subsequently apologised and reduced the price of a battery replacement with the logic ..."replacing an affected iPhone's battery also restores its performance" 

Once upon a time it was normal to be able to change the batteries in our smartphones and even longer ago, when smartphones were known as PDAs we could even buy jackets to give them additional power and functions. The development of the smartphone seems to have gone the same way as the PC ... initially very modular with rapid development and innovation they eventually became increasingly closed and integrated and either causally or coincidentally development and innovation slowed.

Given that we carry our phones around with us all the time its not surprising that so many get broken so quickly ... its probably the case that all of us have dropped and damaged  a smartphone screen at some time and the cost of repair is so high we might as well get a new phone ... especially if the damaged phone is a few years old. 

Without upgrade capability and with expensive and limited repair options Smartphones can for most of use be pretty much thought of sealed and disposable products and very expensive disposable products at that. 

Sealed and disposable by design and with people now so dependent and even addicted to their smartphones the industry is intent on holding people to ransom and forcing them to replace their phones every three years at the most ... Google for example stating that for Android "After 3 years, we can't guarantee more updates".

The smartphone market has matured and rather than the hotbed of innovation it once was it now all the hallmarks of a deathbed and a protection racket.

Could open modular smartphones be the next big thing for smartphones ... just imagine smartphone hardware that you could customise, mix and match, repair and maintain and upgrade or downgrade.

Could open modular smartphones give new life to smartphone development and innovation ... imagine an open ecosystem of module suppliers and a market for second hand modules. Imagine being able to add in new screens, batteries, AI modules, 3D scanning and depth sensing, 360 imagery, higher definition cameras, new generation networking and having your smartphone and its modules as part of new ecosystems such as wearable IoT and home automation.

Could open modular smartphones give new life to smartphones or will the spark just create frankenstein monsters - the concept is good in theory but difficult to achieve in an acceptable way in practice. Besides, open modularity usually occurs in the hotbed at the beginning of innovation cycles rather than the death bed of mature technologies where sunk investments and the force of gravity slow sink innovations into black holes. 

Open and modular smartphones will never happen because its not in the interests of the industry ... while some such as Google experimented with the a modular smartphone  (project Ara) as a platform technology but ultimately pulled the plug ... preferring to hold people to ransom with the products they had. Google's Ara was interesting but as platform tech it wasn't the type of open tech I have in mind. 

Imagine a phone for life ... one that you could repair and re-mix over time ... it will never happen though .... the next big thing will happen with some other type of tech but we can always wonder.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

The Lobsters Of Leadership

I have come across some good leaders in my time .. but I have come across many more bad leaders.

Good leaders are exceptional - they are the exception.

Intelligence, wisdom, knowledge, honesty, integrity, passion, creativity, inspiration ..... the list of qualities we think of as making a great leader is long and its all positive ... but what is the reality?

"It is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it... anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job."  
~ Douglas Adams

There is a disturbing link between psychopathy and leadership and the higher the position of leadership the more prevalent the incidence of psychopathy. Psychopaths, or sociopaths as they are more commonly called today, lack empathy, emotion and conscience - they are in a sense like calculating machines and see people and the world around them in a mechanistic type of way as if everyone else and everything else were like them a machine or system that can be manipulated. Psychopaths can act human when they need to, without conscience they can turn on the charm to manipulate, lie, cheat and steal to get what they want. The corporate environment with its systems of command and control are perfect hunting grounds for the psychopath to thrive in and they do ... the manipulative, cool calculating, ruthless self confident and fearless bravado of the psychopath snake in a suite is a positive trait in the viper nests of corporate boardrooms.

Our organisations are highly hierarchical and the dominance hierarchy is something we share with many other species including lobsters with whom we share a common ancestor. Rather than become a psycho-killer the more capable lobster can hunt and hide in plain sight like a wolf in sheep's clothing as a leader, a CEO or president.

"Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely"

Rather than the X-factor vision to see the bigger picture and act for the common good we find most of our leaders acting only for themselves. While many leaders start out human with good intentions so many turn into lobsters when they enter the lobster tank .... its the way things are done at the top ... to be a leader you have to be this way ... they start acting the part and then become the part. 

Lobsters rise to the top but fish rot from the head down. Our leaders may be lobsters but we should resist following them - be human - celebrate empathy, emotion, passion, honesty, integrity, humility and love - don't drive ....motivate.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Digital Technology And The Human Zoo

Whereas most technology can be defined as "the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes" digital technology is different - rather than direct tangible work digital technology works undercover on information and data and as a secret service its effects are subtle and powerful in shaping, influencing and even potentially controlling our behaviour .. after all "information is power" and it can be power over us.

Like a secret service digital technology has infiltrated our lives ever so slowly over a long time ... grooming us with little toys that make us feel good for a while but like a drug addict we become habituated and we always want more ... we become dependent, we become addicted - our little toys spy on us and we become owned.

In the lawless Wild Wild Web digital technology has groomed and pimped us into modern slavery and farmed us out for free range milking and fleecing under the constant surveillance of voluntary smartphone tagging and tracking.

Enjoy it while you can - our free range days may be numbered. The fossil fuels of the industrial revolution used the remains of plants and animals from millions of years ago but the information revolution needs freshly squeezed "data oil" on scale from live subjects in their natural habitat. There is no better way to do this than to entice and herd us into smart city factory farms where our every move can be tracked without smartphone tagging and our data oil more effectively and efficiently pressed and extracted.

Digital technology is modifying and changing our behaviour and mental health. Like animals in a bad zoo our digital environment is making us behave unnaturally and unhealthily .. we are increasingly anxious and depressed and engaging in obsessive compulsive ritualistic behaviour with our digital technologies.

Where will all this end ... can we ever be free again?

Friday, 30 March 2018

Technology And The Cost Of Magic

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." ~ Arthur C. Clarke 

We love to see magic - the amazement and wonder of seeing things beyond our understanding brings out our inner child. Magic puts us in a transactional relationship we are naturally comfortable with - it plays to a need in most of us to follow - magic impresses us and the magician becomes our leader. 

While technology is based on science most of us have no idea how it works and to all intents and purposes technological objects are like magical artefacts - we know the ritual like procedures, symbols and language to operate them but have no idea how they cause their effect ... technology works automagically and we can command its power.

When rubbing the magic lantern be careful what you wish for, for therein lies the rub. .. magic always comes at a price - it's not free of responsibility, consequence, or cost.

The more complex the technology the more difficult it is to fathom and the more complicated its consequences. Today our technologies are more complex than ever and its consequences are more significant than we might care to ponder. The power conveyed by technology is seductive ... we believe the assertions of the technology wiz kids that they can engineer a better future if only we put our faith and our trust in them, follow the leader and use their stuff.

The tech neoshamen with their visions of tech utopia and fetish objects and tech totems of progress and attraction that seduce, bewitch, addict, dominate and captivate us - its not a rabbit being pulled from the magician's hat but us ... comfortably numb and hypnagogic in the illusion. 


Magicians are people, technology wiz kids are human and the technology they create is loaded with human bias. Technology artefacts of attraction are in fact artefacts of addiction and domination, full of magic tricks that use human bias to push our buttons. Technology is not some sort of neutral self determining good thing but is a product, a business run for loads of money in the service of something - a position, a profit motive, a means to an end.

Magic relies on secrecy - our amazement ends if we see the trick and we wonder how we could have been fooled so easily. Wake up and stay woke .. chose to use open technology rather than let closed technology use you.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Email: Don't Shoot The Messenger

Email, being an electronic version of physical mail is something we can all understand - it's familiar, easy to use and essential but not always appreciated ... indeed as yet another email lands in our bulging mailbox we might want to shoot the messenger. We must learn to love email again and not blame it for the problems we get asking it to do things it should never be asked to do.

The first networked email was sent between two computers in 1971 - Ray Tomlinson was just fooling around looking for something to use the network for and in so doing gave the Internet its first real application.

The real beauty of email is that anyone can message you if they have your email address - we don't all have to be on the same platform like Facebook or Whatsapp to message each other - we can use whatever email system we like - Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Zoho, Proton etc. Email is based on clearly defined international Internet protocols so that different systems can communicate with each other and the message will still get through. Better still ... I can use different email clients with most of these systems and even build my own email system and even do this with a £35 Raspberry PI if I wanted to. But wait, there's more ... using email I can send messages through time - using the same technologies as the early email systems I can send a message to you today and receive your reply. I've sent messages through time many times - its useful to use Telnet to manually craft SMTP to test email systems - something I've done many times with Microsoft Exchange for example when you want to reduce complexity to get a better diagnosis. It would probably be possible to use a computer from 40 years ago to interact with you today .... how many other things in digital technology are like this.

The open, mix and match, decentralised and distributed nature of email is a reminder of the Net and the web we lost but the Internet was born in a different environment than today - the young Net was open and trusting ... some might say naive by today's standards and this causes problems  today ... spam, phishing, viruses, denial of service attacks and the shear volume of email stresses not just our email systems but us as well ... its no wonder people want to shoot the messenger. There is no doubt that email is struggling to cope but don't shoot the messenger and don't throw the baby out with the bath water - we need to play nicely with the baby and protect it.

The problems with email today come from how we use it ... many of the extensions to email over the years have added functionality and made it more useful but stretched it beyond its original abilities - creating flaws and weaknesses ... not so much in email itself but in the systems that support it. There is little that can go wrong with a simple text message but there is little you can do with it to ... Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) really extended the capabilities of email but also extended what can be delivered to our computers ... along with different fonts, attached and embedded files came attached and embedded viruses and malware that exploited the weaknesses of our computers. Email is the lowest common denominator in modern communications but through its extensions has become the biggest common denominator in computer hacking. We can't turn the clock back with email extensions they are essential but we can use them wisely and make sure our computer systems themselves are secure. Protecting our email systems and computers goes a long way to keeping us safe but we need to add common sense too. Use email wisely - read emails properly - look under the surface attention and look at actual email addresses, file names and links that are under the display names  - in Gmail for instance if you hover the pointer over an email address, link or file it will reveal the actual link or address. Be suspicious of anything that is unsolicited and don't open attachments or click links without care and certainly don't open or display attachments or links automatically.

Email is a product of its time, the 1960s and1970s, while it is it is on-line it is asynchronous and more suited to batch operation and this is the best way to use it ... if you want synchronous, multi-way group discussion and collaboration in real-time using email will only cause you grief and you will want top shoot the messenger but its not the messengers fault its yours for choosing the wrong tool. For group discussion you are better off using on-line forums or social media and for group collaboration you are better off using cloud based collaborative systems like Google Apps or Zoho for example. For simple private one to one asynchronous messaging that you can process in your own time it is difficult to beat email. 

It is often said today that email is for old people but email seems ageless .. perhaps its immortal and who knows it may become cool as people become disillusioned with the plethora of fragmented walled garden closed systems of surveillance otherwise known as social networks. Email may become cool again but its not retro .... email never went away is is just taken for granted ... like all successful technologies it disappears into the fabric of life. Email is not the lowest common denominator but the essential common factor running through the fabric of modern life.