Friday, June 27, 2014

What Would Happen If We Replaced Memory With Recordings?

Rob May of Backupify thinks technology could enable us to record every
moment of our lives, and find information from those recordings effortlessly.
Imagine being able to look up, rather effortlessly, what you were doing on January 4, 1993. Imagine in an instant seeing photos from that day and playing audio and video clips of conversations you had. Imagine being able to find quickly those words, names, and stories that are always on the tips of your tongue.

That's what could happen if we backed up our lifestream in the same way we back up our computers and smartphones.

Late last year, I interviewed Rob May of Backupify (excerpt below) in which he said he envisions a future in which all the bits and pieces and snippets of our lives will become saved, backed up, and searchable.

We (the general public, businesses, and of course those working in the technology sector specifically) believe now in the power of data, perhaps more so than the power of "knowledge," and definitely more so than the power of "information." I'm not saying data is more valuable. I'm saying we believe it has more power. You can't have information without data, after all.

The problem as I see it is that data is not memory or history. Hard data, hard evidence, is rarely what we use to piece together who we are and where we came from. We tell stories, which change and morph to better encapsulate the feeling of what happened—not "what happened" as in the evidence that was recorded. How we feel about something that happened in the past can often be more important than what happened. Our memory of an event influences that feeling. And memories are never reliable, especially the more often we remember them. Memories seem to rewrite themselves, according to research.

So what happens if we get to a technological point where it's possible to easily record and retrieve footage of every day, every meeting, every conversation, every lover's quarrel, every glance, every moment, but not through memory?
Rob May: I think we're going to see artificial intelligence advanced to the point where we're going to be able to augment our brains so that we don't have to remember so much.

Say you're talking to somebody and you think, "Oh, let me tell you about..." and it might be a restaurant or an idea or a book—whatever it is. Or, "my friend told me about... what was the name of it? Crap. I can't even remember who told me." But you'll remember some context, like, "We were sitting at that coffee shop," or "it was somebody from work." You'll have a partial recollection. The ability to go find that information—you can't search for that—but to have a service that would let you ask, "What was that book that Fred told me about over lunch a few weeks ago?"

Imagine if we have tools that can record your whole life, and you could go back and recall a conversation or recall the tweet, or the note, or the email, or whatever, and find it. Right now, if you don't know the name of something, it's hard to find.

So I think one thing you'll see is automated agents that access our data and do things to it that make it relevant to you at certain points in your life in time when you need it.

The second thing I think we'll see is a closer augmentation directly with humans. I'm a big fan of Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity. I think it's going to happen. If you look out a decade or maybe two decades, the brain-machine interfaces will bring new advancements. I think we're going to be automated with chips that are going to be able to call on our own big data libraries. Everything that's ever happened to us we won't keep in conscious memory, but we'll easily be able to access via these interfaces if we want to.

It will change a lot of social relationships. I'm a believer that many of our social relationships are built on little white lies, or that we don't remember things clearly, or stories that grow bigger over time, or legendary stories. And all of that will stop, because everybody will remember how something happened.

Jill Duffy: Or they'll have all the notes from their perspective, at least.

Rob May: It could lead to the entire breakdown of society [laughs]!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Everybody Hates Chris is One of the Most Underrated Shows of the Last 10 Years

If you've listen to my views on either television shows or being poor in America, you've heard me talk about Everybody Hates Chris.

Everybody Hates Chris was a brilliant sit-com that aired from 2005-2009, co-created and narrated by comedian Chris Rock. The show is simply about Chris Rock's experience growing up in Brooklyn in the 1980s. I genuinely think it's one of the most underrated shows of the last 10 years.

What the show does so brilliantly is tease out the complexities of being poor, being black, and being a kid who's coming of age in a way that's both funny and insightful. For me, it's the "being poor" part that really gets it right. The social effects and consequences of being poor by American or New York standards are just so complicated, and if you've never been there yourself, it's impossible to understand how interlocked all the problems of being poor are.

My favorite episode is about food stamps (season 1, episode 9 "Everybody Hates Food Stamps"). The video at the top of this post is an excerpt from the show, but watch the full episode to really see how many problems arise from having to spend food stamps. A second clip from the last nine minutes of the show is below.

As the clip above shows, the episode starts out with Julius (the father) finding $200 of food stamps. The mother, Rochelle, doesn't want to spend them because she's a "ghetto snob," a term so rich with meaning that it could take 800 words or more to unpack it alone. Anyway, if Julius spends the food stamps, the family will be stuck with $200 worth of terrible food. So Rochelle surrenders.

She goes to the grocery store. Now, I don't have access to the complete episode, but if I recall, she goes out of her way to shop at a different grocery store than her usual, local one because she's afraid to run into someone she knows and be seen using food stamps, which would be beyond humiliating. See, in some neighborhoods and cultures, how others see you isn't just a matter of pride. It can be debilitating, socially. (For example, there's a story from an Australian woman who moved to India, brought her cat along, and cleaned the cat's litter box. Her neighbors and cook saw she took out the litter herself, and word spread. Pretty soon, local merchants were refusing to do business with her. Not only was she dirty for taking out the cat's poop, but she was also seen as taking away jobs from the lower class. In India, you're supposed to hire someone to do the dirty work. And you can't just ask your cook or regular housekeeper to take out the litter, as that's beneath them. You have to hire an appropriate person for the job, or suffer the consequences of your local fruit seller refusing to sell you fruit.)

Back to Rochelle. If I'm indeed right that she travels to another grocery store, that means she unnecessarily spends extra time and resources getting there. But at least, because she's paying with the found food stamps, she can afford some luxury and fills her shopping cart with name-brand goods. As she's about to pay for about $100 worth of groceries, a friend who just happens to be in that store spots her and says hello. Rochelle panics and pays for the groceries out of pocket instead.

Back at home, Julius, is reveling at having an excess of $200 in the family budget. Maybe he'll take a day off work, he says. Maybe the whole family should enjoy a night at the movies! Rochelle could even get her hair done at the salon with the extra cash. Needless to say, Rochelle can't tell Julius what happened.

As a result, Rochelle tries to sell the food stamps for 50 cents on the dollar, which is a terrible business deal, and she knows it, but she has no other choice at this point. If her friends and neighbors see her trying to sell food stamps, the consequences would be even worse than being caught spending them.

Rochelle is about to make a deal with a woman when her friend spots her. Rochelle is able to deny it fast enough and change the subject, so she doesn't get caught. But the potential buyer happens to be the friend's hairdresser, and lo and behold, she has a clear calendar for the next hour, if Rochelle wants to get her hair done, which she genuinely does, but can't afford to do. To save face, however, Rochelle takes the appointment.

So she's lost a ton of time, is down $100, and is now about to spend even more money that she doesn't have in the salon.

At the end of the day, the family is sitting around the dinner table discussing their plan to go to the movies tonight. Rochelle finally cracks and admits what happened. Julius deftly notes that at least she still has the food stamps, but of course, she does not. She paid for her salon appointment with them for 25 cents on the dollar. As the show closes, the lights go out, as the other expense Rochelle was supposed to pay with the extra money was the electric bill.

The plot is intricate but tight. And it's genuinely reflective of how one small problem can cascade into a series of related problems, which happens all the time when you're poor. If your car breaks down, you can't get to work. If you can't get to work, not only do you lose a day's worth of pay, but--let's say you work in food service--now you also can't get the 20 employee percent discount that you were counting on to buy dinner for your family tonight. So you scrape together the few dollar bills and quarters that you can find and have just enough to buy a pizza and have it delivered, but of course that expense is much greater than what you would have paid for two days' worth of food from your employer. Also, because you spent the singles and quarters on pizza, your kids don't have any lunch money for tomorrow. On and on it goes.

Too few movies and television shows tease out the real complexities of being poor in America, but Everybody Hates Chris nails it, and I think in general the show was completely under-appreciated for doing something so important so well.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

What I Do: Keep it Simple

Get Organized (2013).
My friend let out a deep sigh and looked at me with a pained face.

"My computer is so old, and I need a new one, but I first have to clean up all my old files and put them on a hard drive, which means I have to buy a hard drive. It's going to take forever." She looked down. "And, I mean, I have your book and I know it's going to tell me what to do, but I also know it's going to take so much time to do it right."

"No!" I said. "No no no. It's not hard, and it's not going to take a lot of time! What you have to do is really simple," I said. "And, the way I would recommend doing it is actually free. You don't have to buy a hard drive!"

I told her more or less everything that's in Chapter 1 of Get Organized: How to Clean Up Your Messy Life in a few sentences. Create some folders. Name them by year. Sort your files, and put them into the year folders based on their latest date. That's it. Done.

As for backing up, I said, "Why not just keep your old computer in a closet or something, and use it as the backup? When you get a new computer, you can migrate the important or recent stuff, like maybe the folders for 2013 and 2014, and just leave everything else on the old computer as if it were a hard drive. If your stuff is backed up to Dropbox already [she told me earlier that it was], then that's all you need to do."

I hate that people often assume the advice I have will be deeply technical and difficult to understand or carry out. The whole point of my column and how I write is to be the opposite of that. I take complicated stuff and say, "Don't listen to all those people telling you it's complicated. You don't need to understand every detail. You only need these basics, and I'm going to tell them to you in plain language."

That's what I do.

It all comes down to KISS principle: keep it simple, stupid.

Sometimes, when people hear how simple some of my solutions are, and how they are grounded in common sense rather than code or innovative apps and software to buy, I think they're almost disappointed. They thought there was a magic answer. There isn't. It's really just simple stuff.

But sometimes the simple stuff is hard to do. Anything that requires diligence and follow-through is hard, even when it's dead simple. Eat less (yeah, right). File your tax write-off receipts as they accumulate, rather than at the end of the quarter or year (fat chance). Close your email program when you're trying to get work done. Delete emails that you don't need.

Do you know how many people tell me, "I can't delete emails that I don't need. What if I need them?"

Solutions to technological problems are often very simple and free to implement. Don't make it harder on yourself for no reason by anticipating a hassle. Keep it simple, stupid.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

'Millennials' is the Worst Name Possible for the Young Generation

Image from Jigsaw.
"Generation Y" was coined first. Then someone, possibly Williams Strauss and Neil Howe in a 1991 book called Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584-2069, came up with the synonym Millennials.

I think it's the worst possible name for the generation it tries to describe for one very important reason: Someone in that generation did not invent it.

"Generation Y" was no great feat of wordsmithery either, don't get me wrong. "Digital Natives" is better because it's at least more descriptive. Thinking back, "Baby Boomers" made sense, and to some extent "Generation X" made sense, describing a generation that was slightly lost and ill-defined to from the start. (I just barely make the cutoff for Generation X by most accounts, so I associate myself with the group and term to a fairly weak degree.)

Part of what defines Digital Natives is that they invent everything. With the Internet ever and always at your fingertips your whole life, with the World Wide Web evolving and growing into maturity at the same time and pace, Digital Natives are the creators. Nothing is not worth making. You don't have to be good with your hands to build things either if you know code, or Photoshop, or how to write, or even how to incite controversy. It doesn't matter if what you "invent" is a blog or a piece of software or a pour-over coffee contraption or a theory of anti-feminism. Digital Natives make this stuff happen.

The word "Millennials" on the other hand, ticks me off because two guys invented it in 1991, when the generation they were describing weren't old enough to name themselves yet. It just seems off.

In my heart of hearts, I want to see the generation of people born between, roughly 1980 and 2000 give themselves a new name. I want to hear what they want us and future generations to call them. I don't want two old authors from two generations ago doing it. Until they define how they want to call themselves
, I'm sticking with "Digital Natives."