Category Archives: Identity

A cell phone for each stage of my life

cellphones

In the summer of 2007, me and my cell phone were thrown into a Spanish swimming pool. We managed to reach the shore, but my cell phone died a few hours later from the damages it had suffered to some of its vital number keys. I was generously provided with exactly the same type of cell phone shortly after, which wasn’t a particularly modern device even back then. By now, it comes across as medieval. But it works. I’m not sure when I’ll purchase a new smart phone, but before I do, I’ll quickly remember some of its predecessors in this post. Continue reading

Che Guevara – What is it about his picture?

che

Right, another quick film review then. We went to see “Chevolution” the other night, a documentary about the famous photograph of Che Guevara. The film does a fairly good job delivering the historic facts about the picture’s origins (it was taken by Alberto “Korda” Diaz in 1960) and how it became the most reproduced photograph of a human being. Unfortunately, some of the people asked to comment on the image’s cultural and political significance are not doing a very good job at that and rather deliver some lofty polemics. Here are some of the deeper insights I distilled from “Chevolution”. Continue reading

Alan and Marvin – When machines talk

I’m a bit behind with my commentary on current news. But that’s okay, I think. Some days or weeks ago, the news was that Gordon Brown had issued an official apology to Alan Turing, a genius computer scientist, who was heavily discriminated against and “treated” for being gay until he committed suicide in 1954. Previously, Turing had helped crack the Germans’ encryption code during World War 2.

The story of how Brown’s apology came about is in itself noteworthy, for it came out of an e-petition on the UK government’s website. I must admit, I didn’t even know such thing existed in this country and I will certainly have a look at how e-petitions work. In this case, more than 30,000 signatures were collected and Alan Turing rightfully received his posthumous apology.

Turing Test of human “intelligence”

I guess Alan Turing was mostly known for his Turing Test. The Turing Test is an assessment of a computer’s ability to mimic human intelligence to such perfection that a human judge can no longer tell the difference between the computer and another human. It’s important to mention that the computer and his human counterpart are placed in separate rooms and they both talk to the human judge via some sort of text-based interface so that voice or handwriting don’t influence the verdict. The human judge can ask all sorts of questions through that interface to figure out who’s human and who’s not.

Every so often, some bright minds actually have a real competition based on the Turing Test. The contestant with the best human-intelligence-mimicking computer wins. Don’t know what though. Probably money and three levels up on the geek scale.

Of course, you may ask, “Wait a minute… you call being able to communicate through some text-based interface ‘intelligence’?” The philosophical debate about this is as old as the Turing Test itself and if you expect an authoritative answer in the next few paragraphs, I’m afraid I must disappoint you.

My humble opinion would be that simply being able to carry a nice conversation through some chat program doesn’t mean the computer in the other room is “intelligent”. Intelligence means relating the words and sentences of the conversation to the situation and the context in which it takes place, to everything that happened before and everything that is likely to happen later, and finally, relating the words and sentences to a “being” (don’t make me define “being”…). The conversation only makes sense when you interpret the words and sentences in relation to the unique “being” who expressed them.

The author JD Peters put forward the argument that Turing reduced intelligence to communication without the presence or interference of human bodies because he (subconsciously) wanted to escape the stigma of being homosexual. He may have hoped for a form of interaction and communication that is not distorted by any human “flaws”.

Speaking of talking machines…

While writing this, I remembered that the science fiction literature has already created a number of intelligent machines or robots that would not only ace the Turing Test but also live up to the standards of intelligence that I tried to describe just now (R2D2, etc.).

My most famous example is Marvin, the paranoid android from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He’s an incredibly intelligent robot, but he’s also incredibly depressed. Here are just three little quotes…

Marvin: “I am at a rough estimate thirty billion times more intelligent than you. Let me give you an example. Think of a number, any number.”
Zem: “Er, five.”
Marvin: “Wrong. You see?”

“I’d give you advice, but you wouldn’t listen. No one ever does.”

“I think you ought to know I’m feeling very depressed,” Marvin said.

Big Brother and the “people like you and me” genre

bigbrother

When I came to the UK last year, the TV show “Big Brother” was already ailing, it seemed. After ten seasons or so, the country had lost interest in the idea of locking up a bunch of ever more quirky human beings to broadcast their attempts to kill time. As a last outburst – as a Big Brother supernova, if you like – the media had just squeezed every last drop of news value from the death of Jade Goody, the most famous Big Brother candidate in the UK. Last Wednesday, Channel 4 announced that it will discontinue the show in 2010.

It seemed to me that Big Brother passed away rather quietly – no uproar, no vociferous calls for five more seasons, just a few flashbacks to the most unforgettable moments. But Big Brother certainly deserves some credit. If it didn’t invent it, the program definitely popularized the “people like you and me”-genre. It was the epitome of Andy Warhol’s prediction that we shall all enjoy our 15 minutes of fame, in some cases converting these into 15 minutes of shame.

Now, if we say that people got tired of Big Brother, did they also get tired of the “people like you and me” genre? I would love to say that the answer is “yes”. After ten seasons or so, we came to realize that it’s boring to watch other people going about their day-to-day life. In fact, it would be nice to say that we rediscovered how exciting our own lives can be and that we no longer need the distraction of watching locked-up Big Brother candidates.

Unfortunately, there’s only little evidence that we got tired of the “people like you and me” genre. In fact, it appears to me that we got bored with Big Brother because it wasn’t Big Brother enough… if you know what I mean. How cumbersome to put people in a house for three months until they finally perform something worth broadcasting. How constraining that all those moral conventions of regulated mainstream media still apply. Big Brother was only the beginning, not the end, of the 15-minutes-of-fame culture.

The irony of it all is that we have indeed rediscovered how exciting our own lives can be – and how fun it is to share them with everybody out there. Instead of one Big Brother, we now have millions of little brothers all filming and broadcasting themselves. It is easy and tempting to apply a strict moral judgment on this trend; one that condemns the shameless self-promotion and exhibitionism. But it is equally possible to herald Youtube videos as a form of cultural expression and identity-shaping self-representation. I postpone this debate until the next pub visit later.

How Starbucks might kill freelancing – or the other way around

Coffee shops and laptops

Rumor has it that Obama’s inauguration speech was written by his gifted young speech writer at a Starbucks. That may well be the most famous piece of work ever produced in a coffee shop, but it’s by far not the only one. When I think about coffee shops, I think of freelancers. And when I think about freelancers, I think of Starbucks. But how much longer will this happy symbiosis last?

What triggered my worries was a story in the Wall Street Journal the other day (sorry, took me a few days to sit down and write this). Some coffee shops in New York have started to limit the availability of WiFi or restricted the hours in which you can have a laptop on your desk.

The reasons for this backlash aren’t that hard to guess. Tons of people come to coffee shops to have one cup of tea, no sugar, and then spend the rest of their visit working on whatever they’re working on as freelancers. Hence, other people have no place to sit and enjoy their double chocolate muffin and vanilla latte. The recession may have made the situation worse, as some freelancers probably canceled their home broadband connection for good (if not their entire rental agreement). Ironically enough, the same coffee shops that now suffer the burden of too many freelancing, space-wasting customers once invited them in as a nice strategy to attract business.

I’m wondering how it actually happened that freelancing is now so closely associated with coffee shops? Was it coffee shops first and suddenly everyone thought, “Oh, brilliant… let me freelance, now that I can hang out at this coffee shop all day and night”. Or was it freelancers first until one morning over a cup of coffee some business school graduate thought “Oh, brilliant… all those freelancers want to hang out at a coffee shop all day and night”. Hen and egg thingy, I guess.

Now that coffee shops are restricting the use of laptops, will freelancing die? And without freelancing, will coffee shops die? The consequences will probably not be that severe, I must admit. But let me close with some cultural studies snobbery by saying that what we are is what we drink is what we write is what we are… right?!