- A new design for football helmets using a series of replaceable panels that attenuate impact and reduce dangerous head injuries has found backing with a major manufacturer. It's expected to roll out with a handful of players in 2017. One thing potentially standing in the way of wider adoption is that the form of the helmet limits space available for logos - which is an unfortunate reflection of the competing priorities that designers run up against when developing a product that also has to meet desires of non-user decision makers. That universities would trade long-term health of players for more prominent graphics is a grim notion, but not altogether different from the discounting of the dangerous labor behind making so many of the beautiful objects we lust after.
- Voice based interfaces like Amazon's Alexa are hugely popular but the secondary app marketplace that is supposed to help push usage up even more has a problem with discovery and retention, with people having a difficult time finding apps or their usage of apps falling off almost immediately. The design problem of learning what a limited system like Alexa "knows" is a significant obstacle for voice eclipsing graphical interfaces as the default for many tasks. Whatever the solution is, we think it's likely that adding apps or skills to a system like Alexa requires a heavily curated marketplace to avoid poor user outcomes.
Up in the Air:
- Anti-aircraft weaponry to combat (hypothetical) nefarious drones is in use at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Despite being referred to as guns many times in the article and captions, they don't fire any projectiles. Instead, the weapons jam electronic signals controlling the drone and cause it to loiter uselessly in the air, cut off from remote operation and unable to record video. The technology has been around for a bit, but recent reporting on expanded usage of consumer drones by ISIS for both surveillance and attack purposes is leading to an uptick of interest and deployment of jamming devices like these. This is part of the military technology cycle not often discussed: big defense spending often results in peaceful, commercial counterparts, but it also drives down the cost of some pretty sophisticated tech that can be re-purposed for guerrilla tactics. It's a great irony that the early adopters pay such a high price in dollars and development time for these innovations, only to have the cheap, toy versions thrown back at them.
- Terrestrial "drones" roll out in Washington D.C., their mechanical insides filled with things like burritos, pizza, or toilet paper. It's part of a partnership between gig-economy platform Postmates and the robotics company Starship. That autonomous machines are replacing human delivery in D.C. just as a President who talks frequently about reshoring (but rarely mentions how automation complicates the employment math of the 21st century) is an interesting juxtaposition. It's also a complex situation for a company like Postmates to navigate: by spending time and money on automation instead of wages, they are increasing the animosity of the human labor force that they are still relying on.
- Hiawatha Bray at The Boston Globe with a story on reemergence of analog technologies. 2015 saw the largest expenditure on vinyl in almost 30 years, Kodak is back with a camera for shooting Super 8 film, and turntables powered by vacuum tubes are being manufactured anew. Though not analog in nature, even products like Fitbit live in the space of unnecessary throwback gadget: a software function that can run on your smartphone spun off into its own single-purpose tangible object. There are many reasons (both on the user and business sides) that analog or pseudo-analog devices persist even as "software eats the world" - one we talk about frequently is the deep evolutionary preference for the tangible, or the tendency to equate weight or smooth surfaces with value. In our always-on, networked world of information overload, the natural restriction of options that comes with analog (you can't have the range of albums on vinyl that Spotify offers, the ability to take unlimited photos presents problems of sorting and storing) can help to clear our minds a bit and help us to actually enjoy the experience itself, rather than being paralyzed by choices more vast than was imaginable. When the size of our systems outstrips our ability to comprehend them, it makes sense that we might choose to withdraw to something more knowable.
Making Technology Work for Us:
- On Being talks to Anil Dash about morality in a time when attention is bought and sold for the digital economy, contributing to the pushing and pulling of society by clickbait, fake news and feedback loops of twitter outrage fomenting anger. In particular, Anil Dash critiques the lack of ethics training in computer science education and how that contributes to dark patterns of data visualization and interfaces that make society a little worse off in the bargain. He offers some solid advice on how might re-make the tech industry to be more humane, and restore some of the good without reverting to an unplugged era.
- The ad-hoc, choose-your-own-adventure nature of the internet has transformed political thought and action in ways that are hard to comprehend, much less control. The surprise election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the U.S. and the risks of filter bubbles on national discourse are indicators of those structural upheavals brought by the internet, but so are events like the Women's March that took place this past Saturday. Originally planned as a demonstration in Washington, D.C., the idea spread globally and protests were seen from Topeka, Kansas to Antarctica. By some estimations it was the largest protest in the history of the United States, and it all took place without one central organizing body, political personality, or interest group. While some nations are scrambling to turn more regressive, edifying borders and attempting to codify nationalism, people in the aggregate will always strive to be more free and use whatever tools and technologies available to them to make that vision a reality.