03 January 2006
For what the turtles do, you don't need live ones
From Sherry Turkle's 'dangerous idea' for Edge's question centre 2006:
At the entrance to the exhibit is a turtle from the Galapagos Islands, a seminal object in the development of evolutionary theory. The turtle rests in its cage, utterly still. "They could have used a robot," comments my daughter. It was a shame to bring the turtle all this way and put it in a cage for a performance that draws so little on the turtle's "aliveness." I am startled by her comments, both solicitous of the imprisoned turtle because it is alive and unconcerned by its authenticity. The museum has been advertising these turtles as wonders, curiosities, marvels — among the plastic models of life at the museum, here is the life that Darwin saw. I begin to talk with others at the exhibit, parents and children. It is Thanksgiving weekend. The line is long, the crowd frozen in place. My question, "Do you care that the turtle is alive?" is welcome diversion. A ten year old girl would prefer a robot turtle because aliveness comes with aesthetic inconvenience: "Its water looks dirty. Gross." More usually, the votes for the robots echo my daughter's sentiment that in this setting, aliveness doesn't seem worth the trouble. A twelve-year-old girl opines: "For what the turtles do, you didn't have to have the live ones." Her father looks at her, uncomprehending: "But the point is that they are real, that's the whole point."
Turkle goes on to surmise that the value of the original/authentic/alive thing is in decline.
Her subsequent thoughts about virtual creatures and robots are particularly interesting for owners of Nintendogs.
I call these creatures... "relational artifacts." Their ability to inspire relationship is not based on their intelligence or consciousness, but on their ability to push certain "Darwinian" buttons in people (making eye contact, for example) that make people respond as though they were in relationship. For me, relational artifacts are the new uncanny in our computer culture — as Freud once put it, the long familiar taking a form that is strangely unfamiliar. As such, they confront us with new questions.
(See also a mostly unrelated essay by Christoper Allen about our 'junk relationships' with TV characters, Belongingness and Para-Social Relationships.)
18 July 2005
Girlguiding as a serious game
What is Guiding?
Guiding is a game - with a purpose. It provides opportunities for girls and young women to be challenged by new adventures and experiences and achieve a sense of pride in accomplishment and teaches them to understand and learn about the world, its people and cultures.
Makes sense. There are lots of basic game design patterns evident in Girlguiding: from learning by doing, to levelling up, trading, socialising, and collecting...
Pictures pilfered from here.
Girlguiding UK is also piloting a piece of safer social software: a moderated discussion forum carefully limited to Girl Guides and Girlguiding staff.
28 June 2005
IM and the future of language
Handy notes from Pasta & Vinegar on IM and the future of language:
Adolescents have long been a source of linguistic and behavioral novelty. Teens often use spoken language to express small-group identity. It is hardly surprising to find many of them experimenting with a new linguistic medium (such as IM) to complement the identity construction they achieve through speech, clothing, or hair style. (…) Our research suggests that IM conversations serve largely pragmatic information-sharing and social-communication functions rather than providing contexts for establishing or maintaining group identity. Moreover, college students often eschew brevity. Our data contains few abbreviations or acronyms (…) IM conversations are not always instant. (…) The most important effect of IM on language turns out to be not stylized vocabulary or grammar but the control seasoned users feel they have over their communication networks.
Full paper by Naomi Baron, Viewpoint: Instant messaging and the future of language, Communications of the ACM, Volume 48 , Issue 7 (July 2005).
27 June 2005
NYU journalism instructor, Jefferson Flanders, on the internet-enabled classroom:
The late Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon had it right: the verb “to know” used to mean having information stored in one’s memory – and it now means having access to that information and knowing how to use it. Maintaining the instructor’s authoritative “sage on the stage” role will grow more difficult. Instead, teachers at all levels will increasingly be called on to help students navigate this Alexandrine-like Web library and a new informational literacy will be needed, with an emphasis on judgment, synthesis, clear thinking, and what author Robert McHenry calls a “genial skepticism” about the veracity and quality of the information a mouse-click away.
24 April 2005
Donald A. Norman: In Defense of Cheating
I can't quote from this enough:
...In real life, asking others for help is not only permitted, it is encouraged. Why not rethink the entire purpose of our examination system? We should be encouraging students to learn how to use all possible resources to come up with effective answers to important problems. Students should be encouraged to ask others for help, and they should also be taught to give full credit to those others...
Consider this: in many ways, the behavior we call cheating in schools is exactly the behavior we desire in the real world. Think about it. What behavior do we call cheating in the school system? Asking others for help, copying answers, copying papers.
Most of these activities are better called networking or cooperative work...
In a system where copying is punished, the student feels compelled to lie. Suppose that copying were encouraged honest copying, where the source must be revealed. And suppose that both the copier and the originator of the material were rewarded, the originator for their contribution and the copier for knowing where to seek the information. This would reinforce the correct behaviors, minimize deceit, and encourage cooperativeness...
11 April 2005
My teenage identity activists
About a year ago now, MSN UK implemented a change that prevented people from finding profiles of under-18s, unless they knew their direct screen name. I wrote about it at the time and since then my blog has been used intermittently as an alternative member directory. Here's a sample:
i have any 1 got msn if u have plz give me ur addy and we will have fun chatting i am 14 and i am a girl from wales
Posted by: sophie at February 9, 2005 07:26 PM
joke i am 12
Posted by: sophie at February 9, 2005 07:28 PM
dani give me ur msn addy and we can chat and eny body else if they want is every 1 here send me ur addys plz plz plz plz plz
Posted by: sophie at February 9, 2005 07:30 PM
hia am so brd at da mo n ardli any1 is on msn im 14 n am a gal xxxx add me if u wnt
Posted by: alex at March 24, 2005 06:15 PM
hi do u want to talk
Posted by: suzanne at April 8, 2005 02:19 PM
I'd been deleting the personal information as it's posted but that felt a bit too mean, so now I've decided just switch comments off on that post.
20 February 2005
When I first came to understand RFID, at the Digital ID World conference in 2003, I became excited about how it could be used to create things that tell you stories. I was mostly thinking about books and other items that people collect, and some way of communicating the lifecycle, or social life, of those collectables. What I didn't think about at all, and certainly wouldn't have expected to see so soon, was RFID's use in mass-market toys. WorldChanging reports on two new toys that bring the uncanny world of animate toys closer:
Naoru-kun, a new doll by Bandai... speaks 150 phrases and responds when it's shaken hands, hugged, petted, etc. But when Naoru-kun gets sick, kids have to use one of the items including "syringe," "candy" and "medicine." The doll reads RFID tags embedded in these items and responds accordingly.
Little Tikes has a series of toy kitchens full of interactive technology. The MagiCook Kitchen, for example, comes with pretend food embedded with electronic tags that can be read by sensors on the stovetop which then respond with the appropriate comment.
Freud taught us that "children do not distinguish at all sharply between living and inanimate objects" and that "children have no fear of their dolls coming to life, they may even desire it", so seemingly animate toys make a lot of sense. Do you think they're more likely to be broken by children following that "first metaphysical stirring" described by Charles Baudelaire in The Philosophy of Toys:
The child twists and turns his toy, he scratches it, shakes it, bangs it against the wall, throws it on the ground. From time to time, he forces it to resume its mechanical motions, sometimes backwards. Its marvellous life comes to a stop. The child... finally prises it open... But where is its soul?
New toy aesthetics
In its lead up to the New York Toy Fair, which starts today, the New York Times has a feature about age compression in the toy industry: Gadget or Plaything? Let a Child Decide. It's not news that toys are incorporating more advanced electronics than before, or that children are aspiring to own gadgets - like mobile phones and the iPod - rather than toys; what is really interesting is how this is influencing toy aesthetics:
So compelling is the desire for high-technology products that some toymakers are not only creating more technologically advanced products, but also giving them a less toylike look. Razor USA's electric-powered bikes and scooters - the Dirt Rocket for boys and the Pocket Mod for girls... look like scaled-down versions of adult-size models...
Even colors of toys, many point out, are being recast to reflect a greater emphasis on technology. There are likely to be more gray, white and silver finishes in this year's Toy Fair, a departure from the traditional bright primary colors.
"Kids are very trendy," Ms. Rice [the Toy Industry Association specialist] said, so a toy "has to have style, it has to have a techno-feel, look sleek and have the right colors."
(See also the edgier versions of the classic Looney Tunes characters for the new series, Loonatics, set in 2772.)
So, as increasingly infantilised adults seek more teeny, blob-like, playful devices, their children are trying to get their hands on pared down, stylish electronics. Result: toy-gadget hybrids.
In a similar report on age compression in the toy industry, written in 2002, Dorothy G. Singer, a senior research scientist at Yale University's department of psychiatry, argued against the move from playthings to electronics:
Many tech toys and CD-ROM games squelch kids' capacity for imaginative play, she said, in part by limiting the way they think, producing what she calls 'convergent thinking.'
'You have to answer the way the computer wants you to,' Singer said. But 'when a child plays with dolls, blocks or Legos, they can be anything, anyone, go anywhere -- their imagination soars.'
In related news, Hasbro has developed a new gaming console for three to seven year olds, which is similar to EyeToy but with educational games based on popular animated children's TV shows like SpongeBob SquarePants.
"It's definitely an attractive target area for growth given that kids are becoming tech savvy much earlier," said [entertainment industry analyst] Anita Frazier... "Educational toys account for 50 percent of all toy sales to kids aged five years or under. This is a category where parents make the primary purchase decision, not the kids. It's definitely a hot area for toymakers."
[... According to] Jim Silver, an industry analyst and publisher of the Toy Book and Toy Wishes magazines, "The difference between ION and other electronic learning systems like LeapFrog's Leappad is that this is a game that makes kids move, play and learn all at the same time."
18 February 2005
How to tell if your teenager is a h4x0r
The first series is of particular concern, as their use could be an indicator that your teenager is involved in the theft of intellectual property, particularly licensed software.
Leet words possibly indicating illegal activity:
"warez" or "w4r3z": Illegally copied software available for download.
"h4x": Read as "hacks," or what a computer hacker does.
"sploitz" (short for exploits): Vulnerabilities in computer software used by hackers.
"pwn": A typo-deliberate version of own, a slang term that means to dominate. This could also be spelled "0\/\/n3d" or "pwn3d," among other variations. Online video game bullies or "griefers" often use this term.
26 January 2005
LiveJournal for under-13s
I probably wouldn't have ended up posting this if I hadn't read Anil Dash's recent The Social Impacts of Software Choices post. But I did and so I am. In his post, Anil argued that:
The choices all of us make when creating software, or when finding new ways to use it, are selecting for certain behaviors. This has a tremendous number of implications, despite the fact that the effects are very hard to predict and even harder to change once they've begun.
It's Anil's recognition of this that makes me hopeful that Six Apart might look into the LiveJournal experience for under-13s.
What happened to my account? It seems like it was suspended?
If LiveJournal has conflicting info about your age in your account (it appears different in two places) you need to authorize your account to prove you're over 13 or have your parents' permission to keep a LiveJournal. In the past we did not allow anyone under the age of 13 to have a LiveJournal. Now you can have one even if you are under 13 but because of Federal Law you must get your parents' permission.
Brad, on 2005-01-05
Now, we already know that LiveJournal's users are mostly in their teens and twenties, and even at the time of its acquistion LiveJournal had 33,060 13 year olds - which in reality means 33,060 '13-and-under year olds'.
The world's youngest videblogger, 11 year-old Dylan, for example, uses a 13-and-over service (Blogger). It's no surprise she made it through the sign up process, though, when you see the helpful feedback on the form ;-)
But as far as I know, LiveJournal is the first major weblog/journalling service to open its service to kids. Which is kind of exciting.
I was hugely disappointed, though, to see that while Six Apart and LiveJournal had implemented the required-by-law parental permission verification, they had done nothing to improve the safety and/or internet literacy of the children they were now allowing to sign up for a journal. So, there is absolutely no safety advice, and parents are exited from the set up process before the child fills in their personal information. And this form encourages users to share their personal information, asking all of the same questions it does of older users (e.g. location), and with all of the same careless defaults. Not only does it default to show your email address and IM details, it actually explains that you should keep this option enabled:
Show your contact information
You should keep this option enabled. This allows people to contact you by showing your e-mail address and instant messaging details on your User Information page.
Similarly, on a service that already has 268 'add-me' communities, and seemingly no proactive moderation, users with free accounts can't see the friends of their friends; instead they're recommended to search for people based on their interest or "at random". This introduces a risk for younger girls who - while being focused on belonging and popularity, and 'collecting friends' - would actually opt for friends of friends rather than strangers if they could (as they have with their IM lists).
Defaults matter. Most people will - at least initially - go with the service's choices, especially when they're couched as a recommendation. Children in particular have a very casual approach to identity management, so, at the very least, journals for children should have privacy- and safety- friendly defaults.
In Blogger for example, you have to explicitly choose to set up a profile and all of its defaults are privacy friendly. There's also really clear, user-friendly design and understandable help text. When you're handing over your personal information, you do so under a 'Privacy' header and when you type in information to share, it's really clear how it will be used, e.g. "If checked, your first and last name will appear on your profile."
So, a small development request for Six Apart... Take advantage of the fact that you're now more likely to know who your child users are, and use privacy- and safety- friendly defaults for them (at least). Maybe include some contextual help, especially when you're asking for personal information. And given that you're sending an email to their parents anyway, why not include a little more information about what a LiveJournal is? Not all parents are as tech-savvy as Dylan's dad.
This is all really consistent with Mena's understanding that weblogging is evolving from a publishing model to communication with smaller audiences of friends and family. And it's probably also necessary to prevent the kind of moral panic that errupted around chat a couple of years ago. But maybe it's already too late for that...
See also: My talk at last year's ETech, where I considered how we might ensure children’s safety while letting them have expressive identities in social software.