Amateur academia

Despite the end of the “golden age of academia”, I yearn for an even earlier time: the time of 18th century coffee houses, or as they were known: penny universities. I have been out of academia for a few years (BA from UBC in ’02, MA from RMC in ’08) but I have maintained an interest in academic research. On my own I try to read, think and write with academic rigour. I would like to engage more with academia, and judging by number of meetups and plethora of platforms like Coursera, I think there are many “lifelong learners” that would love to continue to participate in expanding human knowledge in a part-time fashion. Thus, my proposal:

Universities and colleges should develop a bridge between their “professional” academics and “amateur” academics in the community. Astronomy has been able to benefit by organizing networks of amateur astronomers and citizen scientists, but those of us in the humanities and social sciences are locked out of participating and contributing to the academy.

Alumni events and public talks are great, but since they are aimed at the public, they are typically too general to be of interest to the engaged “amateur” academic. At his talk last week I asked Ron Deibert about how I can participate in Citizen Lab research. He didn’t have an answer for me. At the alumni event last night UBC was promoting their Aspire initiative, trying to crowdsource ways the university could interact with the community. I wrote my idea down and later saw that a few people +1’d it (talk about the blurred lines between online and offline!). I hope my alma mater UBC can explore this idea, and maybe develop a model to be used worldwide. It could be a small way to return academia to an earlier golden age of engagement, rather than merely the “diploma mill” it has become over the past generation.

Politics over politech

Evgeny Morozov’s intellectual assaults on “cyber utopianism” and “internet centrism” are well known — if often dismissed by the tech elite. I have been reading his new book To Save Everything, Click Here which so far is a pretty good exercise in skepticism and contrarianism. Yet it is in his most recent New Yorker essay on the maker movement that you see his core position. Some pertinent quotes:

Seeking salvation through tools alone is no more viable as a political strategy than addressing the ills of capitalism by cultivating a public appreciation of arts and crafts. Society is always in flux, and the designer can’t predict how various political, social, and economic systems will come to blunt, augment, or redirect the power of the tool that is being designed. Instead of deinstitutionalizing society, the radicals would have done better to advocate reinstitutionalizing it: pushing for political and legal reforms to secure the transparency and decentralization of power they associated with their favorite technology.

Our tech imagination, to judge from catalogues like “Cool Tools,” is at its zenith. (Never before have so many had access to thermostatically warmed toilet seats.) But our institutional imagination has stalled, and with it the democratizing potential of radical technologies. We carry personal computers in our pockets—nothing could be more decentralized than this!—but have surrendered control of our data, which is stored on centralized servers, far away from our pockets. The hackers won their fight against I.B.M.—only to lose it to Facebook and Google. And the spooks at the National Security Agency must be surprised to learn that gadgets were supposed to usher in the “de-institutionalization of society.”

Our 21st century civilation is “standing on the shoulders of giants” in terms of the foundational layers of both institutions (eg. centralized government, rule of law, transparency) and infrastructure (eg. electrical and shipping grids, lines of communication, engineering standards etc.). Politics is based on institutions while “the Internet” (to use EM’s scare quotes) is infrastructure — yet many of the internet-centrists treat it like an institution. I think this disconnect lies at the core of Morozov’s criticism, and thus he argues that we look past the technology when advocating for political change.

The issue then becomes when technological advances impact political institutions. For example: centralized “Web 2.0” services enable bulk surveillance and threaten personal privacy. Is the solution technical or political? I think EM’s approach would be to ignore the technology and focus on the underlying problem. For example: strengthening privacy protections to account for the case of “bulk”, without tying it to any specific technology. This “politics first” approach frames social problems in a manner that technologists are unused to. We tend towards technological solutions to every problem.

(NOTE: Personally I think we should not solely depend on political solutions and should complement them with technological protections, with the goal of maximizing liberty. But I am not a libertarian.)

おめでとうございます — Happy New Year!

(See all pictures and videos at Flickr)

Happy 2014! This year the grandparents watched the kids so the wife and I could go out for 初詣 (hatsumode), the traditional first trip of the year to the shrine. We left our downtown Kyoto apartment at about 11PM and had a full course of shrine-visiting, including:

  • 電電宮 Denden-gu, where the gods of electricity reside
  • 松尾大社 Matsuo Taisha, where the gods of alcohol reside
  • 春日神社 Kasuga Jinja, a health shrine
  • 御金神社 Mikane Jinja, the money shrine

Our first stop was Denden-gu, a small shrine near Arashiyama. This is a famous shrine for people in the IT business. You will see sponsor placards here for Softbank, NTT, Tepco and tons of other companies. At the entrance there are two signs for Thomas Edison and Heinrich Hertz! Here we were able to ring the New Year’s bell. In fact, we rang it a few times since this is just a local shrine and there weren’t a ton of people. I picked up a good luck charm for our office here.

Next stop was Matsuo Taisha where the wife made a wish to have lots of delicious alcohol this year. Then on to Kasuga Jinja to wish for the health of our parents. The final stop was Mikane Jinja where you basically just wish for money. All in all it was pretty productive(?) and we got home at about 3:30AM.

This afternoon we went up to 龍安寺 (Ryouanji), a Zen temple where we admired their famous rock garden. This garden was designed with an ocean of gravel and 5 island groups for a total of 15 stones. The cool part is that for any viewing angle, one can only see 14 stones at a time. Tricky!

Rock garden at Ryoanji
(full size)