Monday, April 25, 2022

Is the Ukraine Russia's Vietnam?

Many moons ago, Gil and I went to Vietnam on a whim. It wasn’t long after the end of the Vietnam war. We saw people cooking pho in GI helmets on the street, purple hearts were on sale in junk shops, crashed helicopters in gardens, the signs and wreckage of war were everywhere. Some images from Ukraine reminded me of this. The folly of thinking that full armoured divisions and helicopters will defeat a more determined army.

The Ukraine is, indeed, starting to look like Russia’s Vietnam. As the war continues, a highly motivated, agile, local army continues to out-think and ambush the invader at every opportunity, not with heavy armour but local support and surprise. The body bags keep piling up, angering folk back home and an increasing use of conscripts is being used as casualties (circa 20,000) continue to rise. This is a much faster casualty rate than either Vietnam for the Americans or Afghanistan for the Russians. It will take its toll.

Putin is even starting to look like Nixon, lost in his own peculiar Alice in Wonderland fantasy world of uber-long tables, sitting in big Baroque chairs (dictators adore these) in big white rooms, having Mad Hatter tea parties with expressionless guys in big brown and red military hats and epaulets. What worries me is the possibility that he turns into Kurtz, who takes that Marxist historicist, dialectical materialist BS and turns his thesis and anti-thesis, into the final nuclear synthesis. Historicism has a bad habit of becoming deterministic, driven by what he, and Marx, perceived as destiny. I thought that shit had died in 1975 with Pol Pot. It hadn't, the flame still kept alive by mad dictators and hapless academics.

For the present, however, despite his delusional bombast, Russia lost the Battle of Kiev, lost their flagship Naval vessel, a week later they have made no progress on their new fronts, are fighting clearly subversive fires on Russian territory and, unbelievably, Mariupal is still not completely conquered. Like the US in Vietnam, they have responded by simply bombing the hell out of the place. That’s desperate, it’s also morally despicable.

In truth, like the US, they had lost the war the minute they invaded, as the damage they inflicted in trying to win was sure to destroy most of the country. The means had become worse than the end. Their troops are most likely exhausted, demotivated, poorly supplied and want this to end as quickly as possible, just like the GIs at the time. 

The sad truth is that this whole exercise, like Vietnam, seems ‘doomed to succeed’ in that Putin, once he had started, couldn’t back down, even though he has unleashed forces - militarily, economic and political - way beyond his expectations. They’re now stuck in a global quagmire, having made more enemies than friends. The US had the economic clout to pay for Vietnam and recover, Putin may, single-handedly, have created a second Soviet Union collapse, similar to that of the 90s. Lloyd Austin said as much yesterday “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can't do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine. It has already lost a lot of military capability… we want to see them not have the capability to very quickly reproduce that capability.”

The similarity doesn’t end there. Within two years Kennedy was dead (we tend to forget that it was a very popular President Kennedy, who escalated that war but that’s another story), LBJ rumbled on and Nixon was eventually kicked out as the country turned against him. War does funny things to so-called leaders - both good and bad.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

The Drone War: Ukraine

I've been droning on about drones for some time. In 2018 I was in Rwanda, where I got to meet a number of drone companies, delivering blood, doing crop mapping and so on. I came back, wrote a lot about this technology, bought one, gave talks at conferences on the topic and on 27 March had a punt here on Facebook, saying that “Ukraine is a drone war. Ukraine may be the first ever drone war.”

I have a consumer drone. The DJI Mavic 2 Pro can fly up to 8 km (4.3 miles) and will return to your feet with the press of a button. You can see what it sees on your smartphone and the stills and video quality are superb. When you use one, it is not difficult to see its potential in war.

Drones are being used in the Ukraine for several purposes
1. Reconnaissance
2. Payload delivery
3. Distraction 
4. PR

The Ukrainians have employed small autonomous teams, armed with drones, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles and beaten off the supposed might of Red Army. Turkish Bayraktar TB2 and the US-made Switchblade are attack drones that have been hugely effective. Swicgtblades are small, less than 2 foot, collapsable drones that fit in a rucksack, and are armoured. There's a larger 50 pound version. These are being sent in the hundreds to Ukraine.

My friend Peter O’Shea sent me a military article explaining why ‘finding is better than flanking’. Find and destroy, by drones, negated the need to risk flanking as it has the immediacy of surprise. A whole range of drones with lethal payloads have been used to good effect. They have even been used as distractors. The pride of the Russian Navy was sunk after being distracted by drones while a Neptune missile was launched.

A feature of drone tech often missed is its propaganda value. We are watching this war through the eyes of drones. Drone tech is tech that has changed the world without us realising it. We are barely aware of those thousands of drone shots we watch in films and box sets. Spectacular and cheap, it has changed the whole aesthetic of film. Those shots of Mariupol and tanks being taken out are often from the sky, recoded directly and downloadable from a smartphone. We see tank turrets fly, Russian soldiers running in fire. This war is Baudriallardian in that we see it from the sky. We’re there. There is nowhere to hide. All of that video is, of course carefully curated and released. Ultimately, wars are won by hearts not heads. The Ukrainians have won our hearts, hands down.

What we now see is a clapped out Red army, fighting an imaginary war from some old World War II manual. Their Putinesque centralised, command and control structure has been out manoeuvred by small teams with little drones, backed up with payload drones and a population with smartphones that pinpoints the position of every one of their clumsy tanks and trucks. All they’re left with is artillery. Even Mariupol has not yet fallen, with a small group holding on for weeks against the supposed might of the Red army. It’s prized naval ship was sunk after being distracted by a drone! 

This clapped-out, old bandwagon has caused chaos simply because of its size but it is being wiped out, vehicle by vehicle. It’s a short drive from the Belarus border to Kiev, less than London to Birmingham and they still couldn’t get near the city, never mind take it. They have depleted their army, embarrassed themselves, turned Europe against them, strengthened NATO, lost their largest export market and will go through a second economic collapse, shunned by decent democracies.

Russia has already lost this war. Its army is being decimated. Its reputation is in the toilet. It has lost all of its bordering states and will lose more. More than this, it has strengthened the West. The only two countries left in Europe that are pro-Putin are Serbia and Cyprus, which is basically a Russian bank.

So where next? The same direction of travel. The EU needs to get its 27 fingers out of their bumholes and contribute to the defence of their people with a 2% of GDP commitment. They need to wash the dirty money out of the system and continue with strict sanctions until Putin and his cronies go. 

Oh... and invest in drones. We don't know the half of it in drone world. Truss talked about Phoenix Ghost Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems, which are armed drones. They are designed for open, flat country, so perfect on the new Eastern front. Phoenix Ghost is a low-cost, single-use suicide drone that behaves like a loitering munition — flying around an airspace before ramming itself into a target. My own view is that long distance, bird-like drones are already being used with incendiary payloads to start fires in key buildings. Insect size drones for surveillance also in action. I suspect these have already been in use and that drones will continue to play their key role, if not winning role, in this war.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Is handwriting better than typing for note taking? Surprisingly, it's not!

Karl Marx wrote a short summary of every book he read and many scholars and successful people refer to note taking as the secret of their success. I once shared a platform with Richard Branson, where he put his entire business success down to his lifetime habit of taking notes. Apart from being dyslectic, he made the simple point that we forget most of the good ideas we come up with, so taking notes prevents forgetting. He attributed almost all of his business ideas and successes to note taking.

I am also an obsessive note taker and have dozens of black notebooks which have helped me learn and plan over the years. I am often astonished, when speaking to large audiences of learning professionals, how few take notes, when the forgetting curve has been established, since Ebbinghaus in 1885, as one of best known and researched pieces of learning science.

Of course, note taking has always been a staple for learners, especially in Higher Education and the research is clear on their efficacy. Generative note taking and the use of such notes significantly enhances learning. Yet, as technology has become more ubiquitous in learning, the ways in which learners can take notes have expanded. In a study of 577 college students, Morehead (2019), it was found that notes were almost always taken, in notebooks and laptops. Smartphones are also increasingly used to grab images of whole slides, useful when graphs and diagrams are presented but also for the main test points. Students often chose different and combined methods for different courses and contexts. Unfortunately, they don’t always know how and when to optimise their note taking.

That brings me to one of the great myths in learning theory, the idea that it has been proven, without doubt, that hand written notes result in greater learning outcomes than typing.

It is an often deeply held belief among educators that, for learners, handwriting is better than typing. You can see why it is so enthusiastically embraced by those who don't really like this pesky new technology, and that good old fashioned pens and pencils trump the computer. But there’s a problem - it’s not true.

The study that got everyone in such a traditional tizz, by Mueller and Oppenheimer, came out in 2014, with the grand title of ‘The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking’. This eye catching title got tons of publicity and a willing audience of believers. It is strange how a study is enthusiastically taken up and remembered when it confirms one biases.

Most note-taking literature pre-dates computers, so the study hypothesised that typing led to shallower processing and that typing tended to encourage more verbatim note-taking. In three studies, it compared learners who watched the same TED videos:

  1. Laptop versus longhand performance.

  2. Laptop versus longhand performance (students instructed to avoid verbatim not taking)

  3. Laptop versus longhand performance (study of notes was included before testing)


In all three cases they noted the superior performance on conceptual questions by longhand note takers

But…

Few picked up on the replication study in 2019. In this study, researchers replicated and expanded the earlier work by using the same videos but adding a group that took notes on an eWriter and a group that took no notes. The researchers also tested students on the content of the videos two days after watching to examine the effect of different note-taking styles on retention. In one version of the experiment, they allowed participants to study their notes before the test to imitate more closely how students use class notes to study for assessments.

When it came to conceptual questions, longhand did not outperform typing. Indeed, in one test, the laptop, eWriter and no notes groups actually outperformed the handwriting group on conceptual questions. In general, when learners were allowed to study their notes, all advantages just disappeared for the retention test.

In truth, this study does not prove it either way, as the results seemed to reverse. But the idea that there is a significant difference is not proven.

Then Voyer et al. 2022, a meta-anaylsis that explored the effect of longhand and digital note taking on performance, showed no effect of method of note taking on performance under controlled conditions. It considered 77 effect sizes from 39 samples in 36 articles, showing no effect on note taking approach.

It would seem that writing notes in your own words, and studying your notes, matter more than the methods used to write your notes. This makes sense, as the cognitive effort involved in studying are likely to outweigh the initial method of capture. It is not note taking that matters but effortful learning.

Digital note taking has the clear advantage of being capable of being edited, formatted, stored, printed, searched and transmitted anywhere across the internet and devices. This blog piece is a good example. It also allows tools such as spellcheck and grammar checks to be applied, citations automatically formatted, images and video imported. Not much text is written in longhand these days.

This debate focuses on one issue, the method of note talking but the more important issue is to move beyond note taking to actual learning. Here we know that underlining, highlighting and rereading are not efficient learning strategies. One needs to move towards effortful, generative learning, deliberate, retrieval and spaced practice. Note taking is not an end in itself, merely the start of a learning journey. It is an important bridge to more effortful learning.

Bibliography

Voyer, D., Ronis, S.T. and Byers, N., 2022. The effect of notetaking method on academic performance: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 68, p.102025.

Morehead, K., Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Blasiman, R. and Hollis, R.B., 2019. Note-taking habits of 21st century college students: implications for student learning, memory, and achievement. Memory, 27(6), pp.807-819.

Morehead, K., Dunlosky, J. and Rawson, K.A., 2019. How much mightier is the pen than the keyboard for note-taking? A replication and extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014). Educational Psychology Review, 31(3), pp.753-780.

Mueller, P.A. and Oppenheimer, D.M., 2014. The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological science, 25(6), pp.1159-1168.


Saturday, January 22, 2022

Galton - Nature v nurture and eugenics

Sir Francis Galton  (1822-1911), the English polymath, was Darwin’s half cousin, and was enormously influenced by both The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, especially the chapter in former on Variation under Domestication. This was to lead to his later work on ‘eugenics’, a term he coined. As a child prodigy, who left school at 16 as he found the curriculum too dull and narrowly classical, he was a mind of individual spirit, developing the modern fingerprint identification system and weather maps. He was a brilliant statistician and it was his aim to identify and quantify the nature of human intelligence. The phrase ‘Nature versus nurture’ came from Galton. 

Experimental psychology 

As an example of his approach to science, in meteorology, he gathered data at different locations, three times a day and invented weather maps based on htat data, with the arrows and symbols we see today. As one of the first experimental psychologists, he used his analytic skills, along with data, to create what is called Differential Psychology, the attempt to identify differences between people, rather than their common abilities and traits. He used many of the statistical ideas and techniques we take for granted today, including: correlation (which he used but did not invent) and observed, rather than applied, regression to the mean in his observations of breeding sweet peas. He also used natural distribution curves to analyse the data. 

This developed into a more specific inquiry into the nature of our species. He started with large data sets on physical characteristics such as height and facial shapes. This led to him developing fingerprints as a unique identifier. This was presented in Hereditary Genius (1869). 

This led to his work on specific traits that could be measured to determine cognitive abilities. This included the mental representation and imagination of numbers, including synesthesia, visualisation, word association, unconscious events, social traits, moral instincts and reaction times. But it was his work on character and personality, along with heritability that marks him out as an experimental psychologist of some note. Experimentally, and well ahead of his time in psychology, he used twin studies, both identical and fraternal, along with adopted twins, all in an attempt to separate nature from nurture. 

Eugenics 

Unfortunately, this led to his obsession with ‘eugenics’, a term he invented, to promote the marriage and breeding of traits, as Darwin had explained in The Origin of Species. It led to his belief that improvements should be sought, not by allowing hereditary wealth but by showing your personal worth, marriage among equals encouraged and the “better sort of emigrants and refugees from other lands were invited and welcomed, and their descendants naturalised.” One should note that he believed in not allowing what hesawas inferior humans to breed, encouraging them to be monastic and celibate and at times his views bordered on the recommendation of genocide. He was the founding president of the British Eugenics Society. 

Criticism 

He was often so eager to prove his hypotheses, such as the inferiority of Africans, that he refused to accept the evidence that their fingerprints were in fact not less complex than those of other races. His hereditary traits evidence often did not show up in the data, but were promoted as true. The nature-nurture debate had continued with the trend being towards it being much more complex than we mav imagined. Behavioural genetics is now a complex field, the genome has been decoded and much progress is being made to identify and solve problems using knowledge of genetics. 

Influence

Eugenics took a terrible toll across the world, with involuntary sterilisation in the US and even in Sweden until as recently as 1976 and in Japan until 1996. It has influenced immigration policies, the repression of bropups within countries and, of courses, genocides, suchas the Holocaust. Galton is now seen as a racist, eugenicist, which he clearly was. Galton was well travelled and with the spread of the British Empire in the Victorian era, he had enormous influence on attitudes towards how people were seen at home in Britain and abroad. This was to influence many aspects of intellectual and public life, not least in education, where it directly influenced Cyril Burt, who then applied this to UK policy in education, aspects of which have survived to this day. At UCL the Galton Chair of Genetics was actually renamed from the Galton Chair of Eugenics and the word Galton only changed in 2019. Yet his encouragement of statistical techniques and experimental methods to maintain objectivity have had a lasting influence in psychology. 

Bibliography

Galton, F., 1869. Hereditary genius. Macmillan and Company. 
Galton, F., 1892. Finger prints. Macmillan and Company. 
Galton, F., 1889. Natural inheritance. Macmillan and Company. 
Galton, F., 1889. I. Co-relations and their measurement, chiefly from anthropometric data. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 45(273-279), pp.135-145.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Exemplar of successful implementation of tech in schools

Not often you see schools having resolved the ‘technology’ issue. It is usually a contentious issue, often tribal, defensive, even hostile. Despite the endless claims on workload, the refusal to do what every other area of human endeavour does, use technology to reduce it, education often seems to wilfully avoid the issue. Schools have, in the past, been quite independent, creating their own websites, buying and building their own technology, reducing much of it to a cottage industry. It was impressive to find a school network that took technology as seriously as Curro, in South Africa. They had invited me to give a keynote on AI for Learning, based on my book and experience but I hung around as the teacher sessions were so damn good. This is what I learnt, as I think it is a recipe for success.

Centralised service

Curro technology was a centralised service that provided CPD for all teachers, as well as procuring and implementing ALL technology across the entire network of schools. This is NOT simply centralised procurement, it is a group with the deep expertise needed to tackle the change management, training, trials and implementation of a range of activities. They had already implemented a wide range of technologies across the network, accessible through a single point of entry. This, I think is a necessary condition for success, single door, single sign-in. Everything from administration to advanced AI and adaptive learning systems were distributed from this point. Teachers, in particular, appreciated the simplicity of this one-stop-shop approach. It was clear that the service also had real and trusted expertise from which the whole school could draw, rather than distributing responsibility out to all teachers.

Ecosystem of technology

There was a real sense of technology as a force for good in teaching and learning. With champions out in the schools, supported by expertise at the centre, they understood the balance between innovation and implementation. This allows experimentation and constructive feedback. I got none of the tired scepticism I’ve seen elsewhere. Rather than plump for one system, they have built an ecosystem of technologies accepted by everyone. Careful choices, careful implementation and the sense that different tech meets different needs.

Emphasis on CPD

Webinars and other training is distributed, a term in advance, with practical training in hte technology, news on what’s new and other relevant services for teachers. It is clearly a dynamic service designed to bring teachers with them in the change management process. I was giving a talk as part of that process. The day’s activities were under the banner of ‘Imagining 2022’. It’s hard enough to Imagine what any year will bring these days but it was clear that this was a learning organisation, willing to learn from their mistakes and make the effort to plan forward. It was CPD organised by teachers for teachers and not scared of introducing outside ideas and speakers. There was no sense of being a protected, inward-looking process. You got that sense of CPD being in the hands of the teachers themselves, not something done TO teachers.

Content curation

The teachers were full of praise for the provision of content that they could use themselves or for students. There was no sense of the schools hanging on to the idea that ALL content has to be created and delivered internally by the existing teachers. So what of it wasn’t invented here. It was refreshing to find a sense of openness to curated content from outside sources.

Adaptive learning

This was the big surprise. There were glowing testimonials from teachers about the power of adaptive learning, using AI, to personalise learning for students. It was described as a ‘gamechanger’ by the teacher who presented, with clear targeting, so that efficient and relevant, individual interventions could be made for students. It was clear that they knew why they wanted this technology, had implemented it well and were using teacher feedback to spread the word internally.


Content, slides and short videos, along with digital worksheets, were used in class with regular assessments. A big win was saving time on marking and correction, which was automated and done instantly, even alternative question provision. This, I feel, is an argument that is massively underappreciated in schools. Diagnostic questions, provided by the system were found to be particularly useful, for identifying individual learners’ strengths and weaknesses. This meant that teachers didn’t have to wait for an assessment before making an intervention. There was also openness to including parents in the process, using the tech to allow access to their progress, lessening the need for teachers to respond to parent requests. Learners at home can also be held accountable for work in class or at home in realtime. This use of technology to extend teaching and learning was exactly what I had presented in my Keynote, using Artificial Intelligence as ‘Augmented’ Intelligence.

Conclusion

Far from being reactive to innovation they were on the front foot, seeking out the best of breed technologies. By creating a separate entity that centralised these efforts they could keep delivery safe and simple, as well as think about how to bring staff with them. The fact that I was brought in, someone 5,500 miles away, to give a talk, was a testament to their ambition and openness. I learnt more from them as they did from me. That’s as it should be.


Monday, January 03, 2022

Part 3: Metaverse - a look into the possible abyss

Owning a Metaverse is one thing, owning the discourse and language of the Metaverse is another. Note how we’re all now using an invented and owned Facebook brand the ‘Metaverse’ to even talk about this. I get the feeling that we’re being suckered. 

It comes from Neil Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash (which was the white noise seen on screens when the system crashes). It is an astonishing novel, where the virtual world, the Metaverse sits in an anarcho-capitalist world, owned by the Global Multimedia Protocol Group. You access it via VR, controlled by a monopoly cable television group that has replaced all telephone networks, all of this is very close to the Facebook bone.

Facebook’s land grab of the virtual world through Metaverse branding is slick PR but it stinks. It is as if just naming something makes it real. The brand alone acts as the new centre of gravity. Metaverses have been around for decades, what is different is the branding and financial commitment that Facebook have put into this. Apple is having to pay developers six-figure cash sums to retain them, such is the recruitment pull into this world.

Shift to Web 3.0

This is all part of a much bigger shift in tech, re-defining itself as Web 3.0 with an open, permissionless, decentralised world of cryptocurrencies, NFTs, blockchain and multiverses. Why? If you’re in regulatory trouble in this world, create a new one. You are then free from those authorities and constraints. 

Even better, create a system where you make money, and I literally mean ‘make’ money as cryptocurrencies. You create money, then rake in even more money, make virtual stuff, sell it - all of a sudden you have an economy, free from governments and control. That is how these brands already escape tax - they play us by creating virtual excuses. They trade online, making it difficult to pin down taxable entities such as true sales and profits, then shift to low tax regimes to literally steal revenues from the actual countries that accrue the sales and profits. They are the masters of illusion as what they deal in is illusions. This next step is to create a wholly illusory world - the Metaverse.

The libertarian roots of Silicon Valley have outgrown their teenage years. They’re now greedy adults - they want it all. Not content with grabbing all the real money they want to destroy the real and make even more money from the unreal.

People in the Metaverse

Commentary on Tech swings from utopian to dystopian, from hype to horror in a flash. But the

Metaverse could turn out to be a crime-ridden scamfest, full of fakery, rug-pulls, NFT frauds and cryptocurrency BS. The real world has plenty of crime and scams, as does the existing online world but the Metaverse may actually create worlds where this is made so much easier. No one can hear you scream in cyberspace. We may all have our digital twin in the Metaverse but there will be swarms of Jekyll and Hyde twins to deal with.

Objects in the Metaverse

In The Conspiracy of Art (1996) Baudrillard trounces modern art. His book Simulacra and simulations (1981) gave him fame in the art world but this critique of that world demolished the pretence that they were at the vanguard of relevance. Art has become a set of signals, everywhere and nowhere, part of a consumerist nexus with its careers, commerce and tawdry fame. For him it has become a mediocre game of high-end, consumerist and status exchange. He would have been writing about NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) if he were alive today, the creation of digital entities, largely as investment assets. They are already being seen and marketed as assets within the Metaverse.

Nike has acquired a virtual shoe company, RTFKT, who also make NFTs. Let that sink in. They want to sell virtual shoes for virtual people in virtual worlds. Other high-end brands will buy into that virtual economy. That should make us think.

What should also make us think and worry is the strange tale of the ‘Evil Ape’ NFT developer who disappeared after deleting his Twitter account and website, with $2.7 million of investors’ cash. Evolved Apes was a supposed Multiverse full of NFT apes who were to fight each other for survival. The Multiverse and game never appeared. The cash, a cryptocurrency called Ether, disappeared. You’d think the foolish investors would have learnt their lesson but they’re carrying on with Fight Back Apes, fighting the Evil Ape. The whole episode contains all the signs you need on this combination of NFTs and cryptocurrencies in a supposed Multiverse. It will be a dark place, attracting every scammer on the planet.

Places in the Metaverse

Forget simple shoes and images, land and properties are already being sold in Metaverses. When Snoop Dogg developed his Snoopverse, someone bought a property in his virtual world for almost $500,000. “I'm always on the lookout for new ways of connecting with fans and what we've created in The Sandbox is the future of virtual hangouts, NFT drops, and exclusive concerts.” Snoops virtual house is modeled on his real house and you can buy expensive  passes to get access. Platforms are already there, such as Sandbox and Decentraland, with Sandbox already clocking up a $4.3 million sale for a plot of land. Investors and major brands are already buying into the Sandbox project. The role that celebrities and influencers play in this movement will be interesting.

Conclusion

This may turn into a new gold rush, creating a wonderful new market or a form of tulip mania where many lose their shirts. Who knows? What makes this different from previous Multiverses, such as Second Life, is that the underlying technologies, with cryptocurrencies, an already existing NFT market and a ubiquitous, high-bandwidth, cloud-based internet, make it a much more sophisticated world. As we spend more time in such places, we may well be willing to spend money on the places we inhabit. This is the economy of experiences, not physical assets. At the moment it looks as though assets, rather than experiences are its main inhabitants.


Thursday, December 30, 2021

Part 1: Philosopher of the Multiverse - Baudrillard

I have expressed scepticism around the relevance of Foucault, Lyotard and Derrida. Oft-quoted and rarely read, they are plucked from the Postmodern Hall of Fame and used by many to fashionably deanchor us from people in the past and present. But there is one French philosopher I have read all my life, who is very much an outlier - Jean Baudrillard (1929 - 2007). He has proved far more relevant as a philosopher, cultural theorist and prophet. Following on from my last piece on the Multiverse(s)...

How Metaverses develop

Neo, in The Matrix, carries a copy of Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulations (1981) to make the point that the film is grounded in and a commentary on simulations. 



But The Matrix scene with its old-school computer discs inside the book seems rather dated now. The Multiverse(s) is a far more significant move towards the Baudrillian world of what he called hyperreality. As face-to-face and print media moved towards film and television, then online worlds, Baudrillard redefined media in terms of simulcra, or created entities that are no longer just representations but created realities in themselves, de-anchored from reality. These are not just digital media but worlds divorced from reality. He is, the philosopher of virtual reality, the man who envisioned and defined the Metaverse in its infancy, knowing what was to come.

Rather than seeing the world in terms of the old binary oppositions of appearance and reality, subject and object, oppressors and oppressed, he sees us as increasingly being in a world of Simulacra and simulations (1981) – ads, TV news and soap operas. With the Metaverse, we are literally moving into those worlds, inhabiting them, creating new economic models and economies within them.

He maps out the way in which this develops. Metaverses start first to reflect a reality, they then mask and pervert that reality and increase the absence of that reality, then finally bear no relation to reality. There is a brilliant passage in this book on Disneyland. You will never see that place in the same light after reading this critique of the US ‘embalmed and pacified’.

Astonishingly, all of his work was written in the era of broadcast media, before the internet. Now that his simulacra are being realised in computer games, social media, virtual reality, artificial intelligence and now Metaverses, he is more relevant than ever. 

Metaverses and meta-narratives

He rejects what other Postmodernists called meta-narratives, the Marxist and Freudian ideas of the free agent. But where he differs is in positing an alternative, replacing it in Consumer Society (1970) with a more complex agent as consumer and consumption,  not production, as the new locus of economic activity. The areas of economic activity are now simulated environments in the real world, in malls, with their perpetual springtime and shopping. We even buy these simulated ‘experiences’ even in what appears to be the physical world, such as Disneyland.

These new drivers have made us not producers but consumers, with a huge capacity for consumption. Credit literally fuels this excessive consumption by making the satisfaction of these desires easy and immediate. He goes much further in The Mirror of Production (1973), where the major elements in Marxism are demolished. Turning Marxism on its head, he restatess it as a justification for the very system it claims to destroy. With its focus on labour, production and value it lacks distance from the system, working within the mechanics of production. This focuses on the free economic agent rather than that of the consuming agent.

Baudrillard is also the philosopher of ‘consumerism’ which he thinks is now a refutation of ‘communism’. Rejecting the economic explanations of traditional Marxism, the actual world is now a complex nexus of consumerism, communications and commodities. Cryptocurrencies, NFTs, tradable digital entities in games worlds free float beyond Marxist materialism. People are no longer economic agents with a process of production, they are agents who consume and occupy hyperreal worlds. The fact that one of the largest, most valuable and globally pervasive companies on the planet has adopted this as their brand and goal confirms his view that physical production is no longer the essence of capitalism.

Metaverse and history

In The Gulf War Did Not Exist (1991) he shocked many, claiming that the war, as re-realised through media, had created a reality separate from the actual war. His deeper meaning was that when events become dislocated in this manner, history itself collapses through dilution. It moves us beyond an ‘event’ based culture to a non-historical state. Being stuck in the ever-present spectacle, we forget the past.

It is not just that such wars are now filmed, tweeted and YouTubed, many are almost immediately turned into movies and computer games. Dozens of movies now exist and I know of at least 18 computer games based entirely on, or containing, Gulf War events. Revolutions are no longer televised, they’re gamified.With 9/11 we saw this happen with even more intensity and reach, where the two perspectives of the event result in the clash of two separate and global worldviews.

Baudrillard’s position on all of this was brave and honest. He thought that this was almost inevitable. That we as a species will drown ourselves in our own simulacra, its all-consuming nature will smother and consume us. His only reaction was Nietzschean - silence. Baudrillard really (or unreally) is the philosopher of the age of Multiverses.

Bibliography

Baudrillard, J., 1995. The Gulf War did not take place. Indiana University Press.

Baudrillard, J., 2019. Simulacra and simulations (1981). In Crime and Media. Routledge

Baudrillard, J., 2016. The consumer society: Myths and structures. Sage.

Baudrillard, J., 1975. The mirror of production (Vol. 17). St. Louis: Telos Press.

Baudrillard, J. and Singer, B., 1990. Seduction. New World Perspectives.

Baudrillard, J., 2005. The conspiracy of art. New York


Monday, December 20, 2021

Part 2: 20 reasons why the Metaverse may not work out as we think it will

Watching Nick Clegg being interviewed by Horaah Hendry of the FT was embarrassing. Two old men with teenage avatars talking to each other was creepy enough but when they back-slapped each other about being anti-Establishment, it all got a bit arse about facebook. This was facebook PR puff, not journalism. The awkward, missed fist-bump and Clegg holding and drinking an invisible coffee cup, all added to the Pythonesque weirdness. This nonsense aside, we do need to ask some serious questions about this proposition - the Metaverse.

Baudrillard, the prophet of such simulated worlds and their effects on humanity, sees such worlds as being more than extensions of humanity. They capture our attention and hold us hostage. As the world has become de-anchored as God's creation, we began to build our own worlds. It is not yet clear where all of this is going, or more accurately, taking us.

I have been involved with VR for some years, had both the early Oculus kits, written tons about virtual worlds and demonstrated it to many hundreds of people all over the world, including Africa. I have a whole chapter on this in my book Learning Experience Design (2021). These worlds are not new. We know a lot about them and can start to speculate about their future. 

1. Facebook’s landgrab

One worry that most people should have is that this is Facebook. Rebranding the whole company as Metaverse, or Meta, is a huge leap but the Metaverse brand is just flying a marketing kite. It is not really a rebrand - we, and they, still call it Facebook. What we need to question is their move towards total ownership of such virtual worlds. By owning the world, you own everything; the who, what, where, when and how. As a landgrab on the internet, it needs to be treated with due suspicion.

2. Data on everything

Then there’s the data collected within the Metaverse. Facebook want to do a Microsoft and own the OS for virtual worlds by market dominance. At the moment data is distributed, do we really want a centralised place where data can be harvested, not only social data, what is said, but also physical, behavioural data? The opportunities fro extreme forms of surveillance are obvious, so I think not.

3. Metaverse as an economy

Most metaverses, even Second Life, but mostly large-scale games, create worlds in which people want to buy and sell virtual stuff. That's fine on a small scale. When you have a world that is the size of a small, even large, country, you have an economy. But economies are regulated. Do we want facebook to be a regulated economy, like a country? There are already serious concerns about Facebook’s role as a supranational force. One can see the time when such virtual worlds have the status of a country but not for now, and not ones where Billionaires are kings, no matter how benign the PR says they are.

4. Metaverse crypto

Notice how Facebook dabbled in cryptocurrency recently? In 2019 it created Libra, rebranded in 2020 as Diem. This created such a backlash that it has all but disappeared. That doesn’t mean it has disappeared. Facebook as a central bank controlling a cryptocurrency is a frightening thought. Remember, Facebook is not creating a Metaverse as a charitable act, they want to make money... lots of it. Allowing them to create a global virtual world with a virtual cryptocurrency and economy is being touted. This is truly frightening.

5. 2D to 3D problem

3D movies and 3D TV bombed. Sure we like 3D but desirable experiences are not all about 3D fidelity. Even stereo is no longer a big deal in listening to music. Media rich is not mind rich. We love a good podcast precisely because it is a stripped down, single media experience. It feels intimate, like being in that conversation. Turns out that for entertainment and much else, we like just enough to do the job well for immersion (big 2D TV) and no more. The Metaverse may be piling on the pixels but it is not clear that this is what consumers want.

6. Communications

The Metaverse has problems when it comes to communications. It is not so much the high fidelity expectations of the avatars but the communications within a group. It is difficult to get turn taking and the real dynamics of a real meeting going in such environments, especially when they are in a 2D representation. We have two ears, two eyes and a brain that has evolved to monitor around us. Our ears are the shape they are, with folds, as a form of sterescopic radar for listening to others around us. Our eyes are stereoscopic and on the top of our swivelling necks and bodies. Take any of that away and you have a problem. Interestingly Zoom solves that by taking a 3D world and tiling it in 2D. The Metaverse may therefore have a worse group dynamic than Zoom, a lot worse.

7. Turn taking

In a fascinating piece of research by Carnegie Mellon, it turns out that turn taking and problem solving went better when learners turned OFF their video cameras. It would appear that not seeing others in a group is sometimes a lot better than full visibility, as one can focus on the task, not the people.

8. Appearances matter

The Carnegie Mellon study surprised a lot of people who had turned to teaching online during Covid, where the general advice was to keep students’ webcams ON. Counterintuitive though this may be, it seems that students are concerned about how they and their home environments look online. This says something about being careful about true needs in full-blown online environments. That's why most existing Metaverses are chocked full of bizarre avatars.

9. Avatar narcissism

In most virtual worlds, weird avatars are the norm, as people don’t really want to show their true age, weight and looks online. It is all colour, costumes, animals features, weirdness and cartoon fun. How people represent themselves online is far from what they look like in the real world. Will we have a parallel world where people are perennially young, good looking and thin or look like oddballs to mask their ordinariness? It promotes exaggeration of social norms around what one should look like on one hand and freakshows on the other. 

10. Meetings

In a sense, Zoom meetings have accelerated the experience and demand for virtual worlds. Yet there are real doubts about the Metaverse as meetings' technology. Meetings need to be real. We have meetings because we want to have real discussion and make decisions. Is this helped by another layer of representation - avatars? Maybe not. We want to hear real voices and see real faces. The key is not actually the tech but how the meetings are set up and run. They need a good Chair, clear agenda and proper turn taking, along with a movement towards decisions and actions. Having a cartoon, avatar layer may not help one bit. In fact, it may distance you from, or smother, the event.

11. Overstimulation

A surprising finding in VR research was its of lack of efficacy in learning. This is partly to do with the poor design of learning experiences and the focus on creating worlds, not actual learning experiences. But there are lessons to be learnt. Overstimutaion is clearly a problem. People are overwhelmed, and get a sort of stage fright or wonderment in fully immersive online environments. They also get obsessed with detail. This can hinder, rather than help with other tasks, such as efficient meetings and learning. There seems to be a form of uncanny valley effect going on here, where the technology captivates but doesn't relax you.

12. Playworlds

What happens when you build such worlds. Turns out most people muck about a lot. They have fun. It is not as conducive to serious endeavours as you would think, such as collaborative brainstorming and design, even meetings. In fact, it is often a bit anarchic. In VR open worlds, you get people donning full body suits and doing gymnastic moves (and more). It’s showtime! That's why most Metaverses are actually in the games world, something that seems to have passed everyone (apart from gamers) by.

13. Policing

I had a female avatar in Second Life and used to recommend this as the best form of sexual harrassent training you’ll ever receive as a man. It was relentless. There is a real problem in policing this sort of behaviour in open worlds. It is not like the real world where norms are accepted, rules and laws implemented and agreed. It is all a bit Wild West.

14. Fakery

Fakery is the norm in terms of appearance but there is also the problem of fraud and fakery on scale when such a world becomes a phishing ground for scammers and scams. It is bad enough with email and the simple telephone without full-on people talking, charming and defrauding you into doing things that are harmful. The potential for bad actors doing bad stuff is immense.

15. VR shutout

Note how we go full screen when screensharing, that makes sense in terms of focus. There is nothing worse than using 3D VR then seeing 2D video and PowerPoint inside that environment. The problem with VR is that it stops you from using keyboards, taking notes by pen and generally seeing and dealing with the real world. VR is a new medium and not a gadget, yet has not taken off as a mass medium. Even when untethered, it is still largely a niche gamed device. That tells us something.

16. Tech not invisible

Good technology is increasingly invisible. The Metaverse, especially if it involves headsets, makes the technology incredibly tangible, visceral and obvious. It may be that the invisible tech, powered by AI and data, such as IoT, voice assistants and AI as the new UI, will win out and not Metaverses. People want solutions not clumsy tech and the Metaverse is all too visible and clumsy.

17. 90:9:1  consume:comment:create

Most people online are lurkers who consume (90%), a small percentage comment (9%) and 1% create. You can play around with these figures but you get the point. The Metaverse may be just another playground for the 1% of extroverts and narcissists. Most people are reluctant to expose themselves and engage with strangers in such environments, so we may be looking at yet another niche world.

18. Build

Another problem associated with the 90:9:1 problem is who will build these worlds? Fine in Minecraft but the idea that adults will be able to handle the tools and have the time and inclination to do this is ambitious, if not utopian. It is not just the tools, it is the skills. Giving someone a copy of Word does not make them a novelist and giving someone a 3D builder does not make them an architect. Sure there may be pre-built environments. But this is a gargantuan task. 

19. Social engagement

Do people really want to engage with strangers like this, as avatars in a virtual world? It is not clear that they do. The reluctance to engage in this form of communication is interesting. Low-fidelity, social media may actually be better as there is less reveal of the self and more control of exposure. We still use texting, messaging and voice calls - a lot. Virtual worlds give immediate and total exposure that can be unsettling. People may not be as openly social as the extroverts think.

20. Breakout problem

We have a differentiation of media. While the Metaverse is being touted, we have the rise of the audio-only podcast, the inverse of the Metaverse. Philip Rosedale the chief architect of Second Life gave up on High Fidelity, a VR version of Second Life, to focus on spatial audio technology. Second Life is still a million people and a $650 million transactional environment but, as Rosedale says “it didn't break out, it didn't become a billion people. And the hope that Facebook has is that there'll be a billion people using a metaverse”. Maybe, maybe not.

Conclusion

Technology surprises and I have no doubt that Metaverse-type tech will do just that. It may be in speaking to our future or past selves, learning languages, political engagement, dating, porn - no one really knows. But of one thing I’m sure, it will happen, just happen differently from how we envisage.