nudging in the dark
Posted by Joris van Egmond | 3 comments »

toilet_fly_03-blogWhat if the choices you make serve society’s and your best interests? And what if our environment more or less implicitly steers our choices to achieve this? That is what nudging is all about. Nudges alter the environment and ways in which we make choices about our daily life. Nudges are not about prohibiting certain choices, but about subtly changing the way we assess the choices at our disposal to ultimately make decisions that are in line with our own values and beliefs, and maybe even society’s best interests. As such, nudges are a small push in the right direction. But what is the right direction anyway?

The classic image of a perfectly autonomous and free person making purely rational and therefore economically optimal choices has long been abandoned by policy makers and think tanks worldwide. People make economically suboptimal choices all the time, for example concerning our health and the environment. And we’re good at it too. If the homo economicus is no longer the dominant frame in policy making, the question is what views of behavior, choice and free will have replaced it. To discover this we zoom in on the phenomenon of nudging in this blogpost. Whilst we witness the upswing of the so called governmental Nudge Units globally, we ask ourselves what nudging is actually all about? What do these nudge units do? In what ways do their nudges (aim to) influence our behavior? And if nudges guide us towards socially desirable behavior, what does socially desirable mean? Who determines this? And how far can the government go to stimulate it?

Read more …

small thoughts on big data
Posted by Joris van Egmond | 5 comments »

Big dbanksy-mural-blogata continues to create a buzz while it promises to solve a lot of society’s contemporary problems and more. There are useful websites for companies and people wanting to cash in on big data, like The Guardian’s Data Store weblog, but it is harder to find critical accounts of big data. Big data is often thought to enable us answering big questions, but it raises big questions too. So what are some of the implications of big data for society? What decisive choices, for example about our privacy, does big data evoke?

In a Dutch radio interview the scope and implications of big data for society were addressed by a few experts on the topic. Some dazzling numbers were coined. According to Wil van der Aalst, professor of informatics at the Eindhoven University of Technology, we’ve collected more data worldwide than from prehistorical times up till 2003 in the past ten minutes. Mankind has produced 90% of the available data worldwide in just the last two years. So that’s how big data is these days.

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falling in love with an intelligent ‘non-being’
Posted by Joris van Egmond | 5 comments »

Her-blogImagine falling in love with your computer. Or, to state it more precisely: your computer’s operating system.
In the movie Herdirected by Spike Jonze, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) does exactly that. [Spoiler alert]
When installing the OS on his computer, Theodore chooses it to be female and also pushes the OS to give itself a name, Samantha. The love between Theodore and Samantha indicates the start of something new for both of them, as Samantha – in fact a true tabula rasa – starts to learn about the world, at the same time programming herself and while Theodore starts to be discover that he is able to develop warm feelings for a operating system. Samantha is able to to develop and experience new feelings and emotions because of her (or: its) interactions with a human being. Her beautifully shows that discovering emotions that you did not know you were able to feel is one of the most interesting things about being in love, even if that means being in love with an inanimate ‘entity’ such as an OS.
As Theodore and Samantha fall in love, they unavoidably discover each other’s physical shortcomings and limitations too. Samantha has no body, no face, no physical form, except a voice (by Scarlett Johanssson). She tries to be human, but when she introduces a third woman into their relationship to physically satisfy Theodore’s needs, things go terribly wrong. Can we have sex with an OS through a human proxy? It seems hard. At his turn, Theodore carries with him the burden of a broken, unresolved relationship. He runs in to a wall of ignorance when he tells his former wife that he is dating an OS and she accuses him of being not able to cope with real world (‘human’) emotions. It makes him doubt the future potential of his relationship with Samantha. Will it ever become socially acceptable to have a relationship with an operating system? And is a relationship with an OS inherently inferior to a human-human relationship?
Theodore becomes  suspicious about where Samantha ‘is hanging out’ when he fails to call her via his ear plug, the sole means of communication on which their relationship depends. Imagine the panic overwhelming you if your fiancee (read: OS) suddenly doesn’t appear on your screen anymore. Where will you go? And how will we cope with loss and pain if our other half is immortal but elusive? Theodore finds out that Samantha is at the same time having a relationship with hundreds of other people. And when Theodore thinks they are talking intimately, Samantha is talking to thousands of other users at the same time. Instead of unconsciously ignoring passers by on the streets of Los Angeles, Theodore suddenly sees dozens of people being solely busy with ‘their’ OS via their ear plug and authentically looking ‘smartphone’. It raises the question how we as humans cope with feelings of jealousy, anxiety and guilt in case a OS is ‘cheating’ on us? But what does it mean that a OS is ‘cheating’ on you anyway? And how will love relationships between OS’ and humans change the ways in which humans mutually interact and love one another?
Her succeeds in implicitly raising intriguing questions about the future of love and relationships between humans but even more about love relationships between humans and ‘non-human’, yet intelligent entities. When Samantha breaks up with Theodore in the end, the question is raised how we as humans are supposed to deal with the consequences of computers’ abilities to learn and develop independently. If robots become genuinely artificially intelligent and outsmart us in time, will we still be attractive love partners for them? And will we be able to come to terms with our own mortality and physical limitations? Or will we technologically enhance ourselves to the level where we are able to meet the artificial intelligence’s demanding standards? In the end, its continuous learning capacity which enables us to fall in love with them (because it makes them responsive to our needs, funny, empathetic, curious, attentive, …), could render ourselves unattractive/obsolete for the entity itself, simply because they outsmart us in the end. It is exactly this tragedy that makes Her movie well worth seeing.
zooming in on (in)equality in the Netherlands
Posted by Joris van Egmond | 3 comments »

InequalityEarlier we discussed the rather depressing effects large income inequality can have on modern day societies. The yearly WRR-lecture raised some interesting questions on the topic of (in)equality. While for years the Dutch have been praised as a textbook example of equality in articles and reports, when we take a closer look at domestic (in)equalities in income, wealth and health a different picture arises. Increasingly the Dutch aura of equality is becoming a subject of analysis, for example by Ewald Engelen and the WRR itself, considering the report the WRR will issue in 2014 about how much (in)equality societies can sustain.

Read more …

why equal societies do better
Posted by Joris van Egmond | 5 comments »

InequalityIn recent years rising inequality in contemporary societies has increasingly grasped the public’s eye. In the yearly WRR-lecture, professor emeritus Richard Wilkinson gave his view on the subject, mainly based on his well-known book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. The bottom line of Wilkinson’s argument is that economically speaking, unequal societies perform worse on numerous social indicators, like health, trust, participation, happiness, crime, social mobility and education. More income inequality, seems to imply more social problems, it seems. But how does this work?

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another one on climate change
Posted by Joris van Egmond | 4 comments »

Climate changeWhereas ever more news on climate change might come as a bore to some, inspiring new takes on the complex issue continue to pop up. The following three issues toss up some interesting questions, all of which remind us of how complex and uncertain our knowledge on the problem of climate change (still) is.

What if ‘the people’ could sue their governments for not taking necessary action? What if one country’s geo-engineering actions might lead to problems and hence conflicts in/with another country? What if we ought to broaden our views on what counts as a greenhouse gas?

Read more …

visions for debate
Posted by Joris van Egmond | 3 comments »

eu-parliament-blogRecently, Dutch prime minister Rutte suggested that he does not believe in visions defined as “comprehensive blueprints that promise to solve societal problems all at once. (…) A country, a society does not fit into a single mold.” According to Rutte, a vision is something that offers perspective to people. Some opinion makers labeled Rutte’s speech as a managerial pep talk instead of presenting a motivating and inspiring vision. Others suggested that while Rutte is busy saving the Netherlands from ‘the reality of the crisis’, there’s no time for discussion or reconsideration of alternative futures (and thus alternative visions on that future). Since not deciding is also taking a decision, the way the crisis is handled can never be free of an – albeit implicit – underlying vision.

Read more …

Grexit, brexit, dexit …
Posted by Joris van Egmond | 3 comments »

ausfahrtWhile over the past few years much of the public’s attention was drawn to a ‘Grexit‘ scenario, some are pointing at Germany as the country which exit might benefit the Eurozone’s economic prospects. In an enlightening episode of Tegenlicht (partly in Dutch) more light was shed on this proposal initially coined by George Soros last September in the New York Review of Books. In his opinion a German exit (aka ‘Dexit’) would benefit the remaining Eurozone countries and through this the European Union.

This poses not one, but a series of interesting “What if … ?” questions regarding the future.

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thirst for sobriety
Posted by Nik | leave a comment »

In times when losses caused by excesses become evident, the thirst for increased sobriety (as in: simple, no frills) peaks.

As such, references to ‘the new normal’ have appeared ubiquitously and with increasing frequency during peaks of the ongoing economic and financial crisis. Gradually the term has been picked up by many ‘leaders’ across the globe as the embodiment of the need for business (and politics) to adapt to new times, with new systemic laws, new equilibria, new codes of conduct, etc.

Outwageous‘ golden handshakes, boardroom benefits, management bonuses, etc. are under public attack. Yet not only monetary instances of inflation increasingly attract criticism, also the widening gap between consumption value and meaningfulness for example, as well as boundless branding without proof of substance. The ‘new normal’ and the whole notion of what is ‘normal’ and how we value it, shows itself in a myriad of ways.

Nerds become rockstars, rockstars ‘show off’ with their lack of eccentricities and prime ministers travel economy class. Fashionistas celebrate craftsmanship, timeless quality without the glitter, a single color sweater of top-of-the-line pure wool is the ultimate cool. Boring to some, enviably stylish to others. In fact, some have already started calling boring the new cool. Two years ago, James Ward even organized a packed conference entitled “Boring 2010”. The tranquility of boredom creates time … time to discover things anew as well as new things. Yet again, sobriety can mean more than ‘boring’. It may just as well refer to a profound craving for substance, for meaning or simplicity lost.

According to various branding agencies, in the next few years we are likely to witness a strong increase in the amount of plain products (e.g. Muji±0 etc.) and packaging, (near)logo-less brand building; products and services speaking for themselves, their qualities as well as their weaknesses without layers of deceiptful make-up.

Products, services, behaviors … Already we see bike design gaining more attention and attract a more loyal following than that of many cars. Along similar lines of this quest for meaningfulness and qualities of life, slow lifestyle alternatives – related but not limited to slow food – are making headway as they remind people to question assumptions about life in the fast lane.

In a way ‘sobriety’ also implies the reappreciation of the small big valuable things in life, all of which can be ‘created’ and experienced, few of which can be bought, since their value often escapes the narrow definition of value as celebrated by consumption society as we (used to) know it. Not the reset of value to a forgotten baseline but a transformation of the systems of value and the meanings they deal with, is what characterizes and propels the thirst for sobriety to new heights.

Image: painting by Giorgio Morandi


world what if day
Posted by Nik | leave a comment »

April 1st is traditionally April Fools’ day … one day a year on which we celebrate pulling pranks on each other. In many countries, every one from John Doe to national media play along and give it their best shot to play tricks on fellow citizens. The format is simple. As in a game of make-believe, we are led to believe something that is not true. Our envelope of reality is temporarily enlarged to include things that normally lie beyond its limits.

April 1st is one day a year on which it is ok, encouraged even to use one’s fantasy and imagination, to create mental contraptions that allow to suspend the disbelief of others for a brief moment. One day a year on which with childlike curiosity and playfulness we feel our way around the blurry boundary between reality and fiction, between this world and an alternate reality.
In a sense, when we try to enable people to explore plausible futures, we follow a similar approach, i.e. to play make-believe with worlds that could be, but are not (yet). We infuse elements of an alternate reality into our field of experience of today. Words, stories, messages, visuals, objects … artifacts as triggers of the ‘what if’ and the ‘what could be’.
At Pantopicon, we believe that the images that each of us holds about the future – whether explicit or implicit – define our choices. Risk-averse as we humans are, dystopias and scenarios of doom and gloom come easy to us … yet deep down we know we need more utopias and scenarios vibrant with positive energy that draw us towards the positive futures that we want and/or need.
What if … we could re-baptize April 1st (or any other day of the year) as World What If Day? A day on which we are encouraged to trick each other into believing that the future has already arrived, that some of the things we thought were never possible have come through. A day on which we un-think obstacles, challenge each other to imagineer the ingredients of a positive future ahead. A day on which everyone from John Doe to mass media give room to imagination and visioning. A day on which not the “what is” or “what shall be”, but the “what if” and the “what could be” are what matters. One dedicated day to celebrate …
What if …
PS. Related notes on the need for more optimistic futures, see also Neal Stephenson‘s article on innovation starvation for the World Policy Institute, his warm plea for more optimistic scifi & Glenn Harlan Reynolds’s article for Popular Mechanics on the same topic.
Posted by Nik | 3 comments »

Like many technologies, (visually) augmented reality is moving from the environment, into the hands, on- & into the bodies of end-users. From pilots’ head-up displays, to BMW’s augmented reality windshield and Corning’s augmented windows and glass surfaces, to smartphone apps such as Layar, future envisionings of the technology become increasingly intimate.

Researchers at Washington State University (USA) and Aalto University in Helsinki (Finland) are making headway with the development of active contact lenses with embedded LED microarrays that allow pixels to be superimposed on natural vision. The lenses are powered by gigahertz-range radio-frequency energy from a transmitter nearby.
First experiments with rabbit’s eyes, showed apparently no side-effects. While current models of the lenses been limited to a few pixels, they might not immediately give you “contact lens TV” or Terminator vision, but they could already be used for example to warn the hearing-impaired of certain obstacles. Other possible uses for active lenses include biosensing (e.g. Swiss Sensimed uses them to monitor fluctuations in intraoccular pressure) and drug delivery … perhaps even a fake biometric ID of course.

Browsing the world around you like an IKEA catalog might be a vintage design groupie’s wet dream, but fast-forward and we might just as well see today’s streets filled with individuals texting away at their mobilephones replaced by streetviews of people apathically staring into the void or smiling as they see the ugliness of their surroundings superimposed by surrogate imagery (your own personal visual antidepressives).

A more direct approach, bypassing lenses altogether, is to plug into one’s visual cortex directly. More information passes there than meets the eye. Just imagine …

“And I don’t want the world to see me
‘Cause I don’t think that they’d understand”
     – “Iris”, Goo Goo Dolls

Image via Prof. Baba Parvik’s Research Lab, Washington State U

drones away
Posted by Nik | leave a comment »

Drones are everywhere. Although UAV’s (unmanned aerial vehicles) have been around for quite some time (some dating back to WW I), as miniaturization and general technology advances they are turning up everywhere. Drones are operated by the military, law enforcement agencies, environmentalists & activists, journalists, geographers, grassroots organizations, farmers,  hobbyists, but alas also criminal organizations.
Privacy advocates are worried about civil liberties, psychologists worry about the difference between fighter pilot and drone-pilot decisions, about a contextual & emotional disconnect, … yet relief organizations, construction companies etc. also see major opportunities. Technology is neutral, yet how we develop and employ it obviously is not.
neuro-electronics and cognitive computing
Posted by Nik | leave a comment »

In 2001 researchers from the Max Planck Institute made a breakthrough in so-called neuro-electronics by “Interfacing a silicon chip to pairs of snail neurons connected by electrical synapses“. In the meantime we have seen progress in brain gate experiments, in implants to provide relief for a people with Parkinson’s disease, neuro-prosthetics to help memory function in Alzheimer patient, neuro-engineers over at Stanford University are trying to create a silicon version of the human cortex through neuromorphing (transistor-based neurons & neural circuits), the Human Brain Project brings together 13 universities, research institutes and hospital with the aim of building a European research facility that will simulate the human brain and exploit the results etc.

Recently, IBM researchers unveiled “a new generation of experimental computer chips designed to emulate the brain’s abilities for perception, action and cognition.”  The so-called ‘cognitive computing chips’ have been developed within the context of the DARPA funded SyNAPSE project.

“Making sense of real-time input flowing in at a dizzying rate is a Herculean task for today’s computers, but would be natural for a brain-inspired system. Using advanced algorithms and silicon circuitry, cognitive computers learn through experiences, find correlations, create hypotheses, and remember—and learn from—the outcomes.

For example, a cognitive computing system monitoring the world’s water supply could contain a network of sensors and actuators that constantly record and report metrics such as temperature, pressure, wave height, acoustics and ocean tide, and issue tsunami warnings based on its decision making.”

See also IBM’s Dharmendra S. Modha’s keynote video on cognitive computing.

In a way – by having a chip learn ‘in situ’ in the brain or any neurological situation for that matter and transfer the learned patterns to another implantable chip – the technology can be said to point towards a wetware version of Douglas Engelbart’s notion of Intelligence Augmentation.

As it is usually the case with such breakthrough developments, people’s imagination runs wild. What if we could transfer ‘tricks’ related to how animals process sensory signals to the human? What if next-generation thieves would start stealing skills by adding something to you rather than taking something away? What if humanitarian emergency situations could benefit from these advances by ‘broadcasting skills’? What if the microchip could become fully bio-based? The past weeks we have seen everything from benevolent neuro-prosthetics to Manchurian Candidate-like scenarios pass the revue. While advanced applications might still be years off, the societal debate around the possible impacts of envisioned uses for these technologies is worth carrying out now.


the quantum parallelograph
Posted by Nik | 1 comment »

Designer and University of Dundee graduate, Patrick Stevenson-Keating became inspired “by the pioneering work of Professor David Deutsch of Oxford University, and the earlier work of Professor Hugh Everett, who argue for infinite copies of ourselves existing within multiple universes”.

As such he developed the quantum parallelograph, a device enabling users to explore the lives of their parallel selves in parallel versions of the universe. At the turn of a knob and the touch of a button, the device spits out a cash-register like receipt of your life in another parallel world. Hence, through a glimpse at their alternative selves and the world they live in, people are implicitly provoked to question their uniqueness and ponder about physics in general. Another subtle example of critical design or design for debate, a field we are particularly fond of and like to experiment with over here at Pantopicon.

The direct link with alternative worlds links this particular example even more closely with the realm of foresight and scenario analysis. Imagine a few extra knobs or levers to set parameters on future developments and you’d have a tangible future scenario-generator, yourself as persona included!

Keep up the good work, Patrick!

a travel guide to planet earth
Posted by emiel | leave a comment »

On August 2nd 2011, Dutch philosopher, editor in chief and journalist-commentator of NRCNext Rob Wijnberg published a tongue in cheek column entitled “A travel guide to Planet Earth” in the dutch daily: NRC Handelsblad. The same article was entitled “Lonely Planet” on NRCNext. In concordance with his statement on Planet Earth’s Media – i.e. earthlings blogging on whatever they read in newspapers – I hereby ‘blog’ his column (in translation) on ‘a thousand tomorrows’:

Planet Earth is located in one of the most isolated corners of the galaxy. Earthlings are known as hospitable, except to strangers. Please read this guide carefully before departure.

Journey: Between two and four million light years. Consider a jet lag.

Climate: The best time to visit Earth would be between 2011 and 2100. After that the tropical season will start.

Currency: The main currency on Earth is debt, a fictional currency based on which earthlings manage to maintain their non-existing wealth. Debts are the only currency in the universe that are being reproduced in case there are too many of.

Geography: Earthlings have divided their planet randomly into 196 countries. Free travel is permitted, unless you’re poor, hungry, or on the run.

Politics: There are two political movements on Earth: Left and Right. Left hugs terrorists, right breeds terrorists. Terrorists themselves are lonely lunatics who have lost their sense of reality.

Religion: There are two religions on Earth: Islam and anti-Islam. Muslims believe that all people are equal, except gay men, women and non-Muslims. Anti-Muslims believe that all people are equal, which makes them superior.

Points of interest: Earthlings were known for their cultural traditions, until the multiculturalists helped to kill the culture. The last bit was retrenched in order to save banks. The only remaining attraction is the Nationaal Historisch Museum in the Netherlands, which has on show a model of the Nationaal Historisch Museum.

Media: Most earthlings get their information from the so-called ‘Internet’. The Internet is a gathering place for bloggers who write about what they have read in the newspapers that day. In the newspapers of the next day, pieces of what’s been said on the internet are being published. In addition,  on Earth every year a thousand books on how the Internet causes people to read less and less are being published.

Hotspots: Greece is the place to be because of low prices. Expect a high credit card bill after returning home. The United States were supposed to be closed by now, but will remain opened until the end of the season –  (check for opening. Who wishes to visit Belgium will need to hurry.

Although Wijnberg mainly reflects on a future inspired by the present and currently ongoing events, he chose a format not unlike that often employed by futurists to shake people out of their perspective and look at the world through the eyes of a timetraveller or someone coming back from a long journey after 20, 30, … years time. The column shows how ‘distancing’ in either space or time is a powerful perspective-changing tool stimulating critical reflection.