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Attentional Austerity

By Rosie Perera | September 14, 2012 at 1:42 am

I sometimes joke that I have Attention Deficit Disorder. That isn’t literally true, but what is true is that there is too much that interests me, particularly online. I find myself following a never-ending flow of rabbit trails, finding articles I want to read but quickly skipping on to others that those ones linked to, before I’ve had a chance to read much. The result is I churn through so much of my day doing discovery, and flagging things to come back to, that I almost never get around to coming back, and I often don’t even get around to doing the important tasks I needed to get done that day.

I’m suffering not from attention deficit, but attention overload. I am engaging in what Linda Stone calls “continuous partial attention.”

Michael Sacacas proposes a discipline of “attentional austerity” as a corrective to the habits that keep us overloaded. He doesn’t give specific recommendations of practices that might foster attentional austerity. He merely calls us to it, and bets that “the advantage will go to the person who is able to cancel out the noise and focus with ferocity.” Yes, but how? How to say “no” when I find all this stuff so interesting?

I have several ways of keeping track of things I want to go back and read. One lazy method is to keep them open in tabs in my browser. My browser then gets cluttered with open tabs and I need to make notes of what they were before closing them. I used to keep a “To Read” folder of browser bookmarks. I’ve used Delicious to flag sites I want to go back and explore more. I was using the Read It Later app (now called Pocket) for a while (it lets you mark web pages while browsing on your computer that you can then read later on your tablet when you have some more of that elusive substance called “time”). For years I’ve also kept a kind of Internet “travelogue” file of links to interesting places I’ve stumbled upon that I might want to find again. In the beginning I even had time to write notes about each one and boldface the sites that had substantial content and might end up being good reference resources for me in the future. But now I barely have time to copy and paste the URLs. All of that “continuous partial attention” has left me feeling that “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.” I inevitably abandon the tools I was using to keep lists of reading matter.

What I am learning (I’m a slow learner) is that rather than all these tools to manage lists of what I want to come back to, I need to cut back on all the interesting things I might want to read later. I need to close browser tabs more frequently without reading them and without copying and pasting their URL somewhere for later.

One of the motivations for writing this blog post (apart from more procrastination on what I was really supposed to be doing today) was that many days ago I had opened several browser tabs stemming from Michael Sacacas’s interesting blog post on attentional austerity (which I actually did read), and it was time to close them and move on. I had kept them open because I wanted to blog about the topic. Well, I’ve done that now, so I can close the tabs.

Now next time I see something interesting that I want to blog about when I really should be doing something else, will I have the discipline to close the tab without making a note for myself to come back and read it or blog about it later? Oh, attentional austerity is so hard! Maybe I do have a touch of ADD after all.

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Digital Society Conference, June 22-23

By Rosie Perera | May 23, 2012 at 5:23 am

There’s a great conference coming up in Seattle. I will be one of the panelists, and there are some excellent keynote speakers and other panelists. Click on the image to read more details.

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Women programmers

By Rosie Perera | May 10, 2012 at 2:14 pm

I was encouraged by this article to see that tech companies are recognizing the value of hiring top notch women programmers and resisting the all-male culture that was once common in Silicon Valley startups (and still exists in some). I’m also encouraged to see more women going into the field and gaining leadership roles lately. There are so many women who have made an impact and are inspiring more girls to go into computer science. It’s become “cool” to be tech savvy (probably thanks in part to Apple), so girls are not as turned off by that occupation as they were in previous decades.

When I worked for Microsoft I was one of a very small number of women in techie positions (programming, testing, program management). There were more women in other roles like user education and marketing (Melinda French, who later became Bill Gates’ wife, was a marketer in my product team). But Microsoft was actively concerned about how to recruit women back in those early days. I remember being invited to a meeting with Applications Division VP Mike Maples, along with a handful of other women programmers and techie types (maybe 8 or 9 of us in all – less than 10% of the techie employees), and asked “What are we doing wrong? What could we do better to make this a welcoming place for women or to find great women programmers to hire?”

It was a puzzling question. We didn’t really know what to suggest. Part of the problem was that those of us females who did work there back then didn’t mind much about the all-male culture since we fit into it. We were all pretty stereotypically geeky (I suppose I can only speak for myself, but I do think most of us were) and got along fine with the guys. So it didn’t turn us off. The guys we worked with, as I recall, were mostly nerds, all very friendly as colleagues, and did not engage in sexist remarks or harassment. They respected us for we were their equals in our technical abilities. We didn’t have any “brogrammers” — that concept is so very new.

For a while I was part of a group of women techies that formed at Microsoft to encourage our professional development, help with ideas for recruiting women, and for camaraderie. It was named “Hoppers” after Grace Hopper, a pioneering computer scientist who developed the first compiler for a programming language and coined (or at least popularized) the term “debugging” after some of her colleagues found a moth stuck in an electrical part of a computer which had been causing it to malfunction. But I eventually took myself off the email list when conversations on it degenerated into complaining about how Microsoft ought to supply free tampons in the ladies’ rooms to make it a better workplace for women, and other such drivel. Maybe I would have been more tolerant of such “girl talk” now, but back then I didn’t think it was helping matters any.

There was also a problem at the supply end. Only 10% of the graduates in computer science from my university my year (1985) were women. Girls were not being encouraged to study math and computers at a young enough age to make them interested in majoring in it. And the nascent software industry already had a reputation of being filled with geeky guys who stayed up all night working in computer labs (dungeons) to crank out code (think The Soul of a New Machine), so most girls would not have been drawn to it. The numbers improved for a few years in the late 80s to early 90s, but that didn’t last. On a recruiting trip back to my alma mater I visited my old friend professor Andy van Dam, who was as concerned about the lack of women going into computer science as anyone could be. He told me there was an even lower ratio of female students in the department than when I had been there.

I’m happy to see that the Brown CS department now has three female faculty members out of 28, plus four adjuncts out of ten, whereas there were none when I was a student.

Please encourage any girls you know who seem to have any interest in numbers and gadgets when they are young to learn about programming and aspire to be whatever they want to be. It is simply not true that male brains are better at this stuff than female brains. We direct kids into stereotypical pursuits based on our expectations of what they ought to be good at. Sometimes we don’t even give them half a chance. I wrote a paper for a psychology class in college on women and math anxiety, and concluded that much of it is culturally imposed.

I am forever grateful that my parents encouraged my love of math and all things geeky, the things usually only boys were encouraged in back then. My dad taught me to play chess at a young age. My parents gave me a Radio Shack (Tandy) Science Fair Digital Computer Kit when I was about 14, and I had hours of fun with it, learned so much. They gave me gave me a programmable pocket calculator for my 16th birthday. They let me take a BASIC programming class in summer school when I was in high school, and paid for me to take a FORTRAN class at a nearby college when I’d outgrown what my high school could teach me. They also sent me off to a summer program for high school math geeks called HCSSiM (Hampshire College Summer Studies in Mathematics) when I was 16. All of these things provided an enriching environment to grow up in which led me to become a software engineer.

So what can I say to companies now who want to recruit more women software developers? You’ve got to get them when they’re younger. Work to continue changing the cultural perception of computer programmers as anti-social geeky men. Sponsor girls in science fairs. Encourage your own daughters to play with math and science toys and puzzles. (Rubik’s Cube was a big part of my teen years.) Take them to Maker Faires.

Some other good articles/posts on this topic:

Some resource websites for girls/women interested in programming:

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Is Facebook making us lonely?

By Rosie Perera | April 16, 2012 at 5:41 pm

This article is possibly destined to become as oft cited as the earlier Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“:

Is Facebook Marking Us Lonely?” by Stephen Marche (Atlantic, May 2012)

I think it isn’t a question of one solely causing the other. But both contribute to a worsening cycle. Lonely people seek connection on Facebook. And people who use Facebook (and other social networking sites) a lot have less time and less incentive to invest in activities that will develop face-to-face relationships. It doesn’t mean that people who connect more with online friends than in person experience loneliness. They might feel very connected. But as the illustration that began the article shows, they might be lacking in the kind of friends who would help when physical in-person help is needed.

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Surveillance in the Twenty-First Century: A summer course

By Rosie Perera | April 15, 2012 at 1:54 am

Here’s a plug for a week-long summer class at Regent College June 25-29, called “Surveillance in the Twenty-First Century.” It’s taught by David Lyon, Professor of Sociology at Queen’s University in Ontario, and this is his primary area of expertise. He’s taught many times before at Regent, and I’ve really appreciated his laid-back style and yet deep wisdom as I’ve gotten to know him as a friend over the years. Vancouver is awesome in the summer, and Regent Summer School offers some of the sorts of classes you’d never get at another seminary. This one is right up there in addressing issues we face in our daily lives, and helping us to think about them as Christians.

Here’s the course description: “Personal data are vital to organizations today. Gathering and processing such data—whether images from cameras, details from credit cards, or information from ID documents—is surveillance. Supposedly innocent data are now highly valued by corporations (think of Amazon, Google, or Facebook) and avidly sought by police and intelligence services. This has real-world consequences for ordinary people, enlarging or limiting their opportunities, access, and life-chances. This course examines some of the questions about technology, organizations, and ethics that the topic of surveillance raises. How did the culture of surveillance develop? How should Christians treat their personal data and those of others? What are the benefits, consequences, and limits of surveillance? You will have the chance to consider your own ‘data practices’ and to contribute to one of society’s most pressing problems in an informed and Christian manner.”

Here’s a preliminary syllabus.

Professor of Sociology, Queen’s University, ON
BSc, PhD (Bradford University, UK)
David Lyon is the Principal Investigator of The New Transparency Project, and Director of the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University. His books include Identifying Citizens: ID Cards as Surveillance, and Surveillance Studies: An Overview. In 2008 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

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Technology and Love

By Rosie Perera | March 27, 2012 at 11:19 pm

Great article from last year, but I just stumbled upon it today: Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts. by Jonathan Franzen (New York Times, May 28, 2011)

Love is hard-won and difficult and involves pain, but is rewarding and totally worth it. On the other hand, “our technology has become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship, in which the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all powerful.” “[T]he ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.” “[T]he world of techno-consumerism is therefore troubled by real love, and…it has no choice but to trouble love in turn.”

Can consumer technology drive us to real love, can it facilitate real love, is it an alternative to or even a threat to real love? Is our love of it (rather our “like” of it) indifferent to and merely parallel to real love in our lives? Can we truly love technology in the way Franzen describes loving birds? What would that look like, and what would we sacrifice if we did? Would it be worth it?

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To fix government, call in the geeks

By Rosie Perera | March 25, 2012 at 2:35 pm

This article and TED Talk call to mind my Dec 2009 article for Comment Magazine, Whither Democracy 2.0?.

The concept behind Code for America, kind of a Peace Corps for computer programmers, is using technology to empower citizens to solve problems that government isn’t capable of solving or isn’t solving fast enough. Here is a key excerpt from the CNN article:

“So an app that takes just a few days to write and spreads virally is a shot across the bow to the institution of government. It suggests how government might work more like the Internet itself: permissionless, open, generative.

“But what’s more important is how a new generation is tackling the problem of government, not as the problem of an ossified institution, but as a problem of collective action. This is good news, because it turns out we have actually gotten very good at enabling collective action with digital technology. And when we can put aside all the emotional baggage we all carry about government, government is simply what we do together.”

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Homeless hotspots

By Rosie Perera | March 13, 2012 at 11:30 pm

There’s a bit of controversy surrounding this idea that a marketing firm had of turning homeless people into wireless hotspots during the SXSW technology conference in Austin. They go around selling wi-fi access to attendees of the conference, techies who can’t stand to be away from the Internet.

[Image source: The Daily What]

Some folks think it’s exploitation of the homeless:
FOX News

Others think it’s a pretty good idea, better than the alternatives, etc:
The Verge

Others have looked at “the homeless cloud” from both sides now (apologies to Joni Mitchell):
Vancouver Sun

I think it’s brilliant. Perhaps not as well executed as it could have been, but it sounds like the people involved as mobile hotspots enjoyed it and felt honored to be part of this experiment. I hope it gets tried again.

What do you think?

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Consumers’ Online Privacy Bill of Rights

By Rosie Perera | February 24, 2012 at 4:35 am

The Obama administration has just unveiled a blueprint for future legislation which it is calling a “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights,” a statement of principles which companies can voluntarily agree to uphold. As a first draft, it is a big step in the right direction. It is high time for such a thing. I will be very interested to see where this takes us. Already some heavyweights have signed on: AOL, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo. Notably missing (so far) is Facebook, which will have to go a long way towards earning back customers’ trust that it takes their privacy seriously. Even Google made waves with its recent changes to link user data across all its web properties (Google Search, Picasa, Gmail, etc.), and people began to doubt whether Google really can be trusted to “do no evil.”

Here are the main points of the Bill of Rights:

1. Individual Control: Consumers have a right to exercise control over what personal data companies collect from them and how they use it.
2. Transparency: Consumers have a right to easily understandable and accessible information about privacy and security practices.
3. Respect for Context: Consumers have a right to expect that companies will collect, use, and disclose personal data in ways that are consistent with the context in which consumers provide the data.
4. Security: Consumers have a right to secure and responsible handling of personal data.
5. Access and Accuracy: Consumers have a right to access and correct personal data in usable formats, in a manner that is appropriate to the sensitivity of the data and the risk of adverse consequences to consumers if the data is inaccurate.
6. Focused Collection: Consumers have a right to reasonable limits on the personal data that companies collect and retain.
7. Accountability: Consumers have a right to have personal data handled by companies with appropriate measures in place to assure they adhere to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

You can read the full text here, and a hopeful Time analysis of it here.

I’d like to hear your thoughts. Registration is required to post comments (I had to do that to prevent the spam I was starting to get), but I do encourage dialogue. It helps me formulate my thoughts. And I promise I won’t do anything with your email address, and WordPress is secure with that info. You may use a pseudonym or leave your name blank (Anonymous), but a valid email address is required to confirm your registration.

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Giving up Facebook for Lent

By Rosie Perera | February 22, 2012 at 1:04 am

I’m doing it again this year. Kind of a last minute decision as I witnessed at least two or three of my Facebook friends signing off for now, until Easter. I’d been planning to just give up procrastination but one of my biggest ways of procrastinating is checking Facebook (“just one quick little check” and then I get sucked in), so I think that really needs to go too.

If you’re planning on giving up Facebook for Lent: I’ve done it a couple of years in the past, and it helps if you actually deactivate your account. Then the temptation to take one little peek can be fought off more easily. When you reactivate your account, your friend network and all your settings are still intact; you’ve just missed out on whatever junk would have come your way for these next 40 days. To deactivate, go to Account Settings, click Security in the left sidebar, and then click “Deactivate your account.” Hasta la vista, baby!

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