No Tabbed Browsing

WARNING:

This could be the most boring positive constraint ever conceived. To be honest, I did feel pretty embarrassed about sharing such a geeky post. But if, like me, you sometimes feel chained to the hedonic treadmill of The Internet, then I have no shame.

This positive constraint has helped me spend less time in from of the computer, while making that time more productive. Thanks to No Tabbed Browsing I have spent less time aimlessly browsing the web and more time getting shit done.

I won’t blame you if you skip this one, but if you think you might have a problem – enjoy!

Continue reading “No Tabbed Browsing”

Elevate: Lightful! Yes! Workshop

I am currently documenting Elevate, a festival of arts and political discourse that takes place every year in Graz, Austria. This workshop brought together a roomful of creative activists to share ideas on how to give our ideas a colourful and powerful impact on society. (Follow these guys through their Twitter feeds.)

First, Mike Bonanno from The Yes Men took us on a magical mystery tour of creative protest, from the suffragettes dressing up as Ancient Greeks and Gandhi’s salt march, to bread helmets in revolutionary Egypt and the KGB’s flying penises.

“Big campaigns are won by small numbers of people,” Mike says, pointing to the US Civil Rights movement. “It wasn’t even the majority of the minority that was involved.” This is why being creative and making a big noise in the media is important: you can have a disproportionate influence on the political process. “The tendency of the media is to re-tell the same story the whole time,” Mike says. “Keep reminding them what the real story is.”

You can find a lot of Mike’s inspiration through these three resources for creative action:

Ksenia Ermoshina brings a creative perspective from a very different part of the activist world: Russia. Ksenia describes the Russian activist environment, where the police have a tendency to over-react, arresting people who protest by dancing in cathedrals, for example. This has the pleasing effect of amplifying the activists’ message.

Equally, however, Russian civil society has no repertoire of action, as you find in Europe or the States. In France, where Ksenia currently works, the activists can immediately draw on a palette of actions, from die-ins to occupations, that everyone is familiar with. They don’t have to reinvent protest every time.

Ksenia describes her adventures in adbusting, creating speech bubbles for inanimate objects like bricks: “Only for throwing at cops.” Ksenia’s inspiration is Hakim Bey, who declared that, even if only one or two people are awoken, the action is still a success. She also always insists on filming the whole process of preparing the action, whether it’s printing and posting photos of Syrian children or making a Vladimir Putin puppet, so that other people can see exactly how it was done and how they too can protest.

Ksenia’s action has a very immediate and personal element, however. Her mother, a journalist, recently lost her job at one of the few remaining independent publications in Russia. Her question for the workshop: How can we talk to more people, reach more people, in countries where regimes are becoming more authoritarian?

Bruno Tozzini comes from the very different background of advertising, a $137bn industry in the US. And yet he shows us a series of creative responses to social problems, some created by advertising agencies and all using corporate platforms, including an intercultural language exchange over Skype, an online street art exhibition using Google Maps, and the sharing through Facebook of the “invisible” stories of homeless Brazilians.

Bruno then takes us through his “four steps of making” and, in the afternoon, we launch into a workshop focussed on generating creative responses to the refugee crisis in Graz. We brainstorm together and formulate half a dozen actions that could be implemented today, from wifi sharing, a refugee hackathon and SMS skillsharing, to the simplest imaginable creative response: “Just go and say hi”.

Christian Payne is a networked storyteller. It wasn’t always thus, as he shows us through his journey from Alpine pastoralist to newspaper photographer and finally encrypted multimedia archivist. “All media is social,” he says. Christian himself promiscuously shares, not only text, but audio, video, geographic data and photos to tell the stories he encounters from Sudan to Iraq, from Twitter to Storify – from a man holding a smartphone to our ears, eyes and hearts.

Christian is a particularly big proponent of unobtrusive, lightweight, multitasking audio storytelling. He is usually to be found in some quiet corner of the Elevate festival, deep in conversation with some bright philosopher, hacker or DJ, seamlessly sharing their words and thoughts with an audience far away in time and space. He describes audio as an intelligent and intimate storytelling form, akin to reading a book, rather than watching a film.

Christian finishes with a warning about posting online. “You don’t own your image, your image belongs to popular opinion,” he says. “You can attempt control your content, but not the way people react to it.” When it comes to protecting yourself online, his advice is simple: “Connect with kindness.”

The final input of the workshop came from Charles Kriel, founder of Lightful and former game designer and circus performer. Lightful is an app that attempts to solve a problem Charles has encountered when advising NGOs on how to share their stories and get access to funding.

Charles opens, however, by discussing the tragic death at a Turkish airport of journalist Jacky Sutton, a former colleague working in the Middle East. The Turkish authorities claim that she’d missed a connecting flight, been unable to afford a new ticket and had, as a consequence, gone into the ladies’ toilet and hung herself. Charles points out that such a course of action would be ridiculous for a seasoned journalist like Jacky, who’d been working in the region for a decade.

Besides the fact that Jacky had €2400 in cash on her person when she died, enough for a dozen new plane tickets, Charles himself has experience of that same fateful flight. “I’ve missed that connecting flight,” he says. “Everybody misses that connecting flight. It’s a guarantee.”

That starting point shows how dangerous is the work of promoting a free press, particularly in the Middle East. “The region is in even more turmoil than is being reported at the moment,” Charles says. His dream is to create an app that will do some of the dangerous work that puts journalists, NGO workers and activists in such mortal danger. Lightful is that app.

Charles and his small team hope to launch Lightful in stages, starting with registered NGOs in a limited geographical space in the next three weeks. The start may be small, but his aim is quietly ambitious: “I’d like people to get into the habit of doing good work.”

Elevate: The Politics of Data in a Quantified Society

“Are you a robot?” says the disembodied telephone voice. “You sound so much like a robot. Will you say ‘I am not a robot?’”

So begins a presentation from Marek Tuszynski and Stephanie Hankey from Tactical Tech, a presentation that lurches easily from the surreal to the terrifying, but ends with a full bodied embrace of evil.

The central question Tactical Tech pose is: what does it mean to live in a data-ised society, for individual and for corporations?

The luckless telemarketer on the end of the disembodied question refuses to confirm that she is not a robot. That’s the point: when we’ve automated ourselves to the eyeballs with algorithms, how do we still know that we are not being controlled by robots?

Balthasar Glattli, a Swiss national councillor, gave away his smartphone data so that everyone who had voted for him could see exactly what he was doing. From the data that leaked freely from the phone, analysts were easily able to track where he was, who he was talking to and what he was likely to be doing. Over time, it was simplicity itself to build up a network map of all his friends and colleagues.

Marek makes the point again: This is not a hacked phone. This is information that you all have agreed to share with the network provider – and with anyone else who buys that data. “Data is not a carrot,” Marek helpfully points out. “You can’t eat it and it’s gone.”

And if you’re thinking that “vintage” phones are the answer, Marek will swiftly disabuse you of the notion. Non-smart phones still broadcast meta data – location, movement, times, connections – from which you can build up a very detailed profile of a user.

Marek shows us a tool called Trackography, which shows tracking data for media websites all over the world. Every time you browse for your daily news, you are inadvertently sending data to third parties all over the world. Some of these companies you already know, like Google, Amazon or Facebook; but some are completely masked and anonymous.

Marek shows us what happens when we browse through 7 local and national Austrian media sources: Trackography counts 95 unintended connections with institutions all over the world, curious about your clicking behaviour.

Next, Stephanie Hankey introduces us to the marketing concepts of geo-targeting, geo-fencing and geo-conquesting. Geo-targeting is pushing people content based on their location. Geo-fencing is about marking out 100m² areas and targeting adverts at people who are in those areas right now, or who have been there within the last 30 days, say. Geo-conquesting takes it to a new level. This is when a company can see when you’re on a competitor’s territory and pushes you an advert to attempt to lure you away.

Stephanie herself was a victim of geo-conquest just yesterday. As she arrived at Frankfurt airport, she was pushed an ad by Easyjet, innocently asking if she wanted to buy a flight. Easyjet don’t operate from Frankfurt, but they knew she was there and they knew she hadn’t flown with them. But, as Stephanie says, “Paranoid is okay, paranoid is good.”

Furthermore, while older tech companies do have a slightly different business model – Apple and Microsoft also make money from selling soft and hardware – as data reaches further into our lives, more and more companies are joining the data model, including the car industry, to take one notorious recent example.

But Stephanie and Marek aren’t here only to terrify people with the reach of data into our lives. They are also here to encourage us to take control back from the algorithms.

Life insurance companies have started giving customers a discount for wearing a device that tracks your physical activity. The discount is worth about €50 per year. These devices track your geo-location, of course, but also your exertion. Using those two data streams, it is easy to tell, just for example, who is having sex, with whom and how much they’re both enjoying it. Is that worth €50?

But why not take the €50 discount and subvert the business model: fix your device to a metronome, to the wheels of a taxi cab, on the end of a drill or to your dog’s collar.

These comedy subversions belie serious questions, like what constitutes political autonomy in the quantified society? Stephanie questions whether “Big Brother” is even the right metaphor. “Big Mama” might be better; these data-driven surveillance intrusions seem utterly banal, rather than sinister.

Churchix, for example, is a surveillance tool that uses facial recognition software to track which of your flock regularly attends your mass. How do these things become normal, even for a church? Even if Churchix doesn’t take off, how did it come to pass that someone thought this was a good idea?

Corporations have been leading the way, of course. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has spent $14m buying the 3 houses around his property so that he would have no neighbours. Contrast that personal decision with Facebook’s real name policy and business model that encourages us to make the private public. And let’s not forget that it’s a business model that made a $3bn profit last year, paid UK staff bonuses of £35.4m, yet only £4,327 in UK tax.

According to Stephanie, these huge data corporations are going around government. They see themselves are being “uber government” and it seems unlikely that they will be pulled into check now.

Microsoft have developed a chip the size of Scrabble tile that can be implanted into women and control their fertility. Calico are in the business of “radical life extension”, curing death. Google are building a space rocket so they can mine the moon.

These are not the things we think of when we think of our favourite Silicon Valley apps.

Marek ends with a provocation to action: How can we counter the creativeness of these uncompanies?

Tactical Tech have a number of projects to help people answer this question:

No Television

In today’s digital age, No Television isn’t much of a positive constraint for a lot of people. We can do all our couch potatoing in front of the computer instead: Netflix, YouTube, DVDs. Distracting diversions and an escape into ennui is right at our fingertips.

But, for me, No Television is kind of where it all started. When I was growing up, my family never had a television. The only time I saw a moving picture was when we went to my nan’s (always on a Sunday so that I could watch Football Italia), when I went round a friend’s or when we went on holiday.

The stated reason for this prohibition, for the 18 years between my birth and when my older sister went away to university and brought back a TV, was that television would rot our brains.

The consequences were, I think, far reaching. I’ll quickly cover three of them.

I spent more time reading books or entertaining myself by digging holes in the garden.

Without a television to distract me, I read a lot of books. Yep. I was one of those kids who’d already read The Lord of the Rings before anyone else in primary school had even heard of The Hobbit.

I also spent more time on computers. Television wasn’t allowed, but computers were, and we had a BBC Micro ever since I can remember. This computer ran games like Frogger from tapes you had to put into a tape player and rewind after playing. Sometimes the tapes would get chewed up and you could never play that game again. Medieval.

I had almost zero exposure to popular culture.

I missed every significant British cultural event, from Torvill and Dean’s ice dancing (23.95 million viewers in 1994) to the funeral of Princess Diana (19.29 million viewers in 1997), as well as everyone else’s must-watch TV, from SuperTed to Father Ted. I had no idea what any of the Hollywood women looked like and couldn’t sing the theme tune to Match of the Day.

I also missed out on all the great adverts of my generation: the milk tray man, the roller-skating pandas, funky chunky almonds , the red car versus blue car race – to name just the chocolate-based ones.

As a consequence, however, I never got caught up in any of these crazes. I couldn’t participate, so instead I held all popular culture in utter disdain.

It gave me a taste of the unconventional.

Having no television when I was a kid made me highly eccentric. In 2001, 97.5% of households in Britain had a television and watching TV was a full-time job for a lot of people, with average viewing time over 30 hours per week (still is, actually).

That gave me a choice: I could either live my life permanently embarrassed and ashamed that I couldn’t join in the conversations about Chris Evans on TFI Friday or Naked Germans of the Week on Eurotrash – or I could embrace being the unconventional eccentric weirdo.

That’s a pretty weighty life decision for a nine-year-old.

Where are we now?

Hmm. More time reading and on computers; zero knowledge of, and utter disdain for popular culture; an acquired taste for the unconventional. That pretty much describes the essentials of grown up Dave’s character.

I read 35 or more books a year and try to write a couple too, using my trusty computer (I’ve upgraded from tapes, though). Despite the valient efforts of my friends, I’m still miles behind on popular culture – I watched a film on Sunday night for the first time I can remember in years. And this whole blog is dedicated to the unconventional ideas and actions that can take our lives out of the ordinary and into the memorably extraordinary.

Indeed, positive constraints, the art of doing exactly the opposite of what everyone else is doing, could be seen as the brain-child and embodiment of that first enforced constraint, No Television.

Coda

We found out, years later, that the reason we didn’t have a TV was not because my parents were scared us kids would waste all our time rotting our brains out over Eurotrash. Oh no. It was because my dad would’ve done.

Productivity Positive Constraints

This is part of a series of blog posts on positive constraints. You can read much more here.

Today’s post will be short, but show you three positive constraints that I guarantee will make you more productive at work.

No Desk for Creativity

This positive constraint works for anyone who spends far too much time in front of their computer. I constantly have to remind myself that spending hours on the computer does NOT equal productivity.

The environment we live in is constantly giving us emotional cues. Whether we listen to Bach or Megadeath, whether we can smell lavender or gasoline, whether we stand or sit at a desk will have an influence on our mood and thence the work we do.

I associate desks and computers with Work. That’s Work with a capital “W” because it’s stressful Work, Work that feels like Work: chasing emails, answering queries and junking spam. I needed somewhere I could escape.

But how? My default “relaxing” hobby was to flop down in my nice swivel chair and drag the mouse around the computer screen for an hour or so. I had to disrupt this mindless habit. So I built a No Desk desk, a desk that folds flat against the wall.

With a permanent unfolding desk, my computer was always out and the opportunity to work was always there. A folding desk gives me an alternative. Now, whenever I fancy a change of scenery or a break (and always at the end of the day), I clear the desk and fold it down.

Folded desk
Folded bliss! There’s my sofa on the right, ready for leg stretching creativity. Note also the plants: greenery is good for mind relaxation too.

The critical point is that I can’t work on a desk that isn’t there. The computer goes on a shelf and I can sit on my sofa and relax. That relaxed state is where we find day-dreaming, imagination and creativity.

It’s like an off-switch for my work-related stress and an on-switch for creative thinking. It has transformed my working day and I love it.

What you need: Two strong hinges from a hardware shop or online (mine were £26 for two), a flat piece of wood for the desk (mine’s varnished), a couple of wall batons and some screws (all recycled). The build took me about two hours. If you have a bigger house than me, then separate your working space from your relaxing space – and make sure you spend time in both!

No Phone against Distraction

When I’m working, I put my phone away into a drawer, with the ringers off. This is surprisingly simple, but devastatingly effective. The old adage “out of sight, out of mind” is no less true for being ancient.

After my experiment with No Phone, I am now acutely conscious every time I check my phone. I know that, when I leave my phone on my desk, I will check the thing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s gone off or not, I still check it, several times an hour.

These are called microchecks and they are toxic to our focus. Every time you look at your phone, you are distracting yourself from the task you were engaged in. Every time you distract yourself, it takes an average of 25 minutes to regain your focus. By which time, you’re checking your phone again…

Putting my phone into a drawer when I’m working is a really simple way to safeguard my focus.

What you need: A drawer, a bag or a different room.

No Computer for Writing

I often write using my Neo Alphasmart instead of my laptop. The Neo is a full size keyboard with a four line screen and a memory for hundreds of thousands of words. That’s all.

Neo 2015-09-28 001
The Neo. Indispensible.

There’s no internet connection to distract me. There’s no hunching over an eye-straining glowing screen. There’s no clunky weight to carry around or rest on my knees. There’s no power cable because there’s hardly any technology to power so the batteries (3xAA) last for years.

This is a great example of what I mean by minimum viable technology. I could use a pen and paper to write; that would certainly be less tech than even a glorified typewriter like the Neo. But I type much faster than I handwrite, so this glorified typewriter is a more viable technology for the task of writing than pen and paper. (For me.)

The Neo does the job of writing better than anything else. Even so, I still habitually turn to my laptop, with all its distractions and discomforts. I have to remind myself to leave the desk or the house, with the Neo in tow and rediscover writing purity, just me and the typing machine.

A computer can do a million things, but when combined with human distractability that’s a weakness, not a strength. The Neo does only one thing and that means more writing, less Tetris.

What you need: A Neo Alphasmart (~£50 second hand from the US), or any other more basic technology. Hats off to you if you can manage with just pen and paper.

So there you have it. Three dead simple positive constraints that you could get working with today.

If you’d like to be first to hear of the positive constraints book, please sign up to my mailing list here.

Minimum Viable Technology

This is part of a series of blog posts on positive constraints. You can read much more here.

Rather than an experiment, this blog post deals with the idea of Minimum Viable Technology, one of the most important basic concepts that governs the wider application of positive constraints. First, a little story to illustrate the principle.

I was in Boots the other morning, buying a Meal Deal for the train down to Bournemouth. I hadn’t had time for breakfast because I’d had to get up super early to appear on the Victoria Derbyshire show on BBC2. But that’s another story altogether.

Boots, if you hadn’t noticed, has self-service checkout machines. You know, the ones that constantly screech about an unidentified item in the bagging area. You know, the ones where you don’t have to talk to another human being. You know, the ones where you can leave your headphones on, stay on the phone and surreptitiously put down six avocados as a kilo of onions in Asda.

I never use them.

I queue up for an actual human interaction. Except there’s no queue because everyone’s too busy screening their phones, waiting in lines for the self-service checkout machines.

I walk up to the man behind the checkout and smile. He smiles. I say good morning, he says good morning. I hand over my Meal Deal merchandise and he says there’s an unidentified item in the bagging area. We laugh.

Then it comes to the bit where I have to pay Boots some money. I whip out my debit card and ask him if I can use this. He replies in the affirmative.

“Is it contactless?” he asks.

“No,” I reply. “Thank god. I never want one of those.”

“Why not?” he asks, preparing the machine to receive my contactless-less card. “They’re really handy!”

“Really?” I ask.

“Yeah! They’re so quick and easy – it takes like two seconds! Please, insert your card.”

I shove my card into the machine and wait for the invitation to enter my PIN.

“Isn’t this quick and easy enough?” I ask him. “I think there’s a certain level of technology that’s enough, you know. I don’t think we have to always make things quicker and easier. I can use this bit of plastic to pay for things without money. It takes about twenty seconds. Isn’t that quick and easy enough?”

The machine flashes that my transaction is complete.

“Yeah, I suppose.” He hands me my receipt. “I never thought about it like that.”

“And we wouldn’t have been able to have this little conversation. I like that twenty seconds!”

He laughs.

Minimum Viable Technology

Technology is there to solve the little problems of existence and support us in our lives. There’s a lot of amazing tech out there and it’s easy to get sucked into saying yes to every little advance, whether it’s needed or not.

Technology solves problems. That’s good. But when the problem is solved, I think we should stop there. Paying for something when I haven’t got any cash on me is a mild inconvenience, but my debit card solves it with little fuss. Saving a further twenty seconds at the checkout is simply not a problem that I have.

In fact, far from being a problem solved, shaving seconds from that interaction is actually a bad thing. Solving problems that aren’t problems will always have consequences. In this case, it alienates us a little further from the people who serve us our Meal Deals.

I’m far from being against all technology (he says, publishing this on the vast interconnected technologies of the internet), but I do think we should always use the minimum viable technology for a task. In other words, we should use the most basic tools that will still get the job well done.

Minimum Viable Technology: Benefits

Skills

The more basic the technology, generally speaking, the greater the skills you must learn and deploy.

For example, motorists who grew up in the 40s, 50s and 60s had to become semi-skilled mechanics in order to keep their cars on the road. Modern motorists have no such need. In fact, car manufacturers deliberately make their technology unhackable, so that you must go back to the approved dealer for expensive repairs.

The same is true of modern computers. You used to have to understand the fundamentals of programming to use a PC properly. Nowadays, user interfaces have evolved to the point where the internal workings of your computer are shrouded in mystery. When something goes wrong, the user is clueless and open to exploitation.

Of course, for many people, myself included, this ease of use is a good thing. But ease of use and incomprehending dependence are two completely different things.

Dependence is hierarchical and undemocratic, concentrating knowledge and power in the hands of the few. It reminds me of the worst excesses of medieval religion, where divine forgiveness was sold to the layman by a corrupt hierarchy of priests.

Hidden Benefits

Using the minimum viable technology for a task often has hidden benefits. For example, writing long hand on paper is important to cognitive development in children, helps you learn by combining visual, motor and brain processing, could make us more creative and stave off mental decline as we get older. Not bad for something that is so obviously “backward” in this screen-filled age.

These hidden benefits apply to almost every positive constraint that I’ve experimented with: No Hot Showers, No Mobile Phone, No Supermarket.

The Tool is not the Task

In our search for the most efficient technology, we forget that 99% of a task is not about the tools we use.

  • Cleaning yourself is not about power showers, hot water tanks or expensive shampoos; it’s about water and scrubbing. Jumping into a lake would do it.
  • Communication is not about 4G, wifi or GSM; it’s about talking to other human beings. Like the ones you see on the train every morning.
  • Grocery shopping isn’t about foil-packed for freshness, 138 different varieties of soup or self-service checkouts; it’s about building a strong and healthy relationship to your food and the people who supply that food. You find that at your local greengrocer, not in the aisles of a supermarket warehouse.

The Best Things in Life are Simple

Using the minimum viable technology reminds us that the best things in life are not complicated.

There is nothing that gives me greater pleasure than pulling on a pair of walking shoes (my minimum viable technology for travel without blisters), slinging a small backpack over my shoulder (MVT for basic food and camping gear), walking out into the sunset, sleeping the night on a hilltop in my bivvy bag (MVT for sleeping) and waking to the warming glow of the sunrise.

I don’t need much more than that. Anything else is a luxury and distracts from the task at hand: exploring the corners of the life I have been given.

Technology is there to support us when we need it, not to be taken for granted. When the support falls away – and it will one day – will you be able to stand on your own two feet?

Coda

When I arrived home from my trip to Bournemouth, there was a letter on the mat from my building society. Inside was a letter congratulating me on my arrival in the future, attached, my new contactless debit card.

If you’d like to be first to hear of the positive constraints book, please sign up to my mailing list here.