Are you digitally literate?

Crossposted from Medium, an evaluation from the depths of tech support

Working in tech support has its ups and downs, but is ultimately rewarding. Digital literacy—the ability to confidently and capably use and understand technology—is something that is often lacking from the people I support, from high school students to retirees. I mentally evaluate people on their level of digital literacy, not to judge or mock them, but to best assist them. The more self-aware a customer, the easier it is for us to help them. Rather than disparage the oft-perceived “stupidity” of the people that seek my assistance, I’d rather turn my attention toward improving their basic digital literacy skills.

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Some notes on surveillance and national security

Jill Lepore, in her excellent examination of the current state of surveillance that we languish in, made this remark in reference to Jeremy Bentham’s essay  On Publicity:

““Without publicity, no good is permanent: under the auspices of publicity, no evil can continue.” He [Bentham] urged, for instance, that members of the public be allowed into the legislature, and that the debates held there be published. The principal defense for keeping the proceedings of government private—the position advocated by those Bentham called “the partisans of mystery”—was that the people are too ignorant to judge their rulers.”

To paraphrase, according to Bentham, it wasn’t previously that that citizens should know what their government was doing because they wouldn’t be smart enough to understand and evaluate the decisions made by their leaders.

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A Self-Driving Car “Revolution”?

The potential benefits and issues of self-driving cars have been addressed by many magazines, from The Economist and The Atlantic, to Business Insider and Forbes; and more  recently acknowledged by highway safety authorities in the USA. A hot-button issue as of late,  using autonomous vehicular control to reduce traffic fatalities and injuries is an ideal that should be encouraged, but it can’t be achieved without addressing a variety of concerns. Threats of generational trends, liability, security, and class (and cost) issues could doom a future of fully autonomous vehicle domination before it begins.

Naturally, to evaluate the future of this technology, we must first understand how self-driving cars work. Two notable elements of operating a self-driving car are the abundance of sensors involved and the integral role of programming the “right” way to drive. As quoted in the article:

Sometimes, however, the car has to be more “aggressive.” When going through a four-way intersection, for example, it yields to other vehicles based on road rules; but if other cars don’t reciprocate, it advances a bit to show to the other drivers its intention. Without programming that kind of behavior, Urmson said, it would be impossible for the robot car to drive in the real world.

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Tech tidbit: an observation

Newt might’ve been onto something. It’s jarring to see pieces about the “internet of things” written using a dumb vs smart dichotomy. Once something becomes networked it becomes a “smart” device where previously it was a “dumb” device. It attributes an odd sense of inferiority on mere “manufactured” devices which are excellent at what they do–toasters, for example. Why do we refer to networked devices as “smart” inherently?

The article that sparked this thought train.

Certainly having Internet access gives one access to greater information, and having networked devices enables one to easily and efficiently collect data on such machines, but to what end? Smart meters in electricity are lauded as reducing the guessing game and allowing power companies (and homeowners) to evaluate their electricity usage and ways to reduce consumption. But they involve many pros and cons.

The myriad definitions of “smart” make defining networked devices as smart devices quite easy, and meaningful when assessing this dichotomy. In terms of smart meters, one might say they’re called such because choosing to install one could be a shrewd investment in ones energy savings. However, when it comes to devices with more fluid functions, like the smartphone, it becomes a bit more difficult to discern where such a prefix came from, and why analog devices have come to be known as “dumb”. Perhaps instead of shaming Newt Gingrich for his tech illiteracy we should entertain the idea that he might, in fact, be onto something as he searches for a new definition that goes beyond calling a networked device merely “smart”.